Zero-calorie, natural sweetener
Stevia sweeteners are natural, zero-calorie, high-intensity sweeteners that are typically 200-300x sweeter than sugar. Traditionally obtained from the stevia plant, they are the fastest growing segment in the sweetener market today, being used in thousands of food and beverage products.
Despite the undoubted success, there is a problem with the currently available stevia sweeteners – their taste. The most prevalent stevia sweeteners in the plant have a lingering bitter, liquorice flavour, which gets worse at higher concentrations. This off-taste means you can only put a certain amount of stevia in a product and hence makes it very hard, and often impossible, to achieve a zero calorie product using stevia alone. And even if only a minority of people find your product unpleasant (people vary in their ability to taste the off-taste), this can significantly reduce the potential market. This issue can be partially mitigated, but not solved, with taste-masking agents.
A second issue with the currently available stevia sweeteners is that their sweetness on the tongue has a natural peak that cannot be improved. No matter how much more you pump into a beverage, you’ll never get a sweeter taste.
The impact of these two issues can most readily be seen in carbonated soft drinks. The use of stevia as a sweetener for such drinks has strongly accelerated in recent years. But, in almost all such products, the stevia is blended with sugar or similar. The final product has no more than a 30-35% reduction in calories compared to regular drinks. The taste and sweetening power issues of the current stevia sweeteners mean that the sugar cannot be replaced entirely. It also means that stevia is not achieving its zero-calorie potential.
Solving the taste and production conundrum
The stevia plant also makes stevia sweeteners (for example, Reb D and Reb M) that do not have this taste problem. Unfortunately, the plant makes them in very low amounts, well below a concentration of 1%. Getting commercial volumes of such sweeteners would require planting, growing, harvesting and extracting an extraordinary amount of stevia plants from vast tracts of land which in turn makes them prohibitively expensive.
By making these better-tasting sweeteners using yeast fermentation, Evolva solves this problem. Reb D and Reb M can be made on a large scale with economics that make them affordable to the average person. Our approach also provides a simpler, shorter and safer supply chain than traditional cultivation, processing and refining of plants.
Based on these advantages, we believe that our stevia sweeteners have the potential to significantly expand the use of stevia worldwide.
Cargill partnership and progress to market
In 2013, we exclusively partnered our stevia program with Cargill, Inc. (Minneapolis, USA), with Cargill being responsible for the manufacture and commercialisation of the resultant stevia sweetener products. Under the terms of the partnership, Evolva has an option to financially participate in this business up to a 45% level. If Evolva chooses not to exercise its option, then Evolva will receive royalties from Cargill that range from mid-single-digit to low double-digit percentages.
Stevia represented Evolva’s largest research programme during 2014. Good progress was made throughout the year on strain development, product purification and production scale-up.
Evolva believes it is the first company to successfully make stevia sweeteners by fermentation, and has filed multiple patent applications to protect its leadership position. The first of these patent applications was granted in 2014, and we expect many more to be granted over the coming years.
As with all Evolva’s products, it is hard to estimate the market potential of Evolva’s stevia. However, based on market data compiled by Mirabaud Securities (2014) and LMC International (2014), various third-party data and internal market forecasts, Evolva estimates that the total addressable market for its stevia product is around USD 4 billion. This market size is considerably in excess of the current stevia market (estimated at around USD 100-200 million at the ingredient level), but is in turn a small fraction of the total sweetener market (estimated at some USD 60-70 billion)