Cargill Develops New Stevia-Like Sweetener Without Plants

  • EverSweet fermented using genetically modified baker's yeast
  • Swiss biotech company Evolva collaborated on development

Cargill Inc. has developed a method of using fermentation to produce certain molecules found in the stevia plant, potentially solving some of the obstacles preventing wider use of the calorie-free sweetener.

The process and the resulting product, EverSweet, were invented in conjunction with Swiss biotech company Evolva Holding SA. The sweetener will be commercially available in the U.S. next year and abroad later on, Minneapolis-based Cargill said Thursday in a statement. Evolva shares surged as much as 29 percent in Zurich.

The advance may offer Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. a solution to their long search for a calorie-free sweetener that tastes good and doesn’t scare off consumers wary of ingesting unnatural ingredients. It also could make the sweetener more economical by avoiding the hassle of growing stevia plants and extracting the minuscule amount of useful chemicals contained in each leaf.

“That’s the beauty of fermentation: It’s scalable,” said Andrew Ohmes, global commercial manager for Cargill’s high-intensity sweetener business.

With full-calorie sodas blamed for contributing to America’s obesity epidemic and consumers concerned about the health effects of artificial sweeteners like aspartame, stevia offers a natural alternative. The additive is derived from a plant grown mostly in China and South America.

Licorice Aftertaste

Coca-Cola introduced Coca-Cola Life, which uses stevia and some sugar, in the U.S. last year. PepsiCo sells Pepsi True, with a similar sweetener mix, in a few U.S. cities and on Amazon.com.

But despite success in products like flavored waters, the plant was difficult to use in colas and other beverages requiring more sweetness. In those products, stevia had a licorice aftertaste and a sweetness that hit tastebuds too late and too strongly.

Cargill separated out the 40 glycosides in the stevia leaf to test different combinations for taste and mouthfeel, Ohmes said. The company found a pairing that created the best taste but made up less than 1 percent of the leaf.

That’s where Switzerland’s Evolva came in. The company helped craft a fermentation process driven by genetically modified baker’s yeast to create the two desired compounds. The company’s stock traded 27 percent higher at 1.29 Swiss francs as of 12:18 a.m. in Zurich, giving Evolva a market value of 513 million francs ($524 million).

Product Testing

Cargill has been testing EverSweet with a few customers for 18 months, said Scott Fabro, global business development director for high-intensity sweeteners. No company has an exclusive agreement for the product, he said. Others are trying to create similar ways of producing the sweeteners, but Cargill and Evolva have a swath of intellectual property that will make that difficult, he said.

Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said the company continues to work with suppliers to pursue innovations in sweeteners. He declined to provide specifics on what research the company is conducting. Coca-Cola uses Cargill’s Truvia brand of stevia-based sweetener in Coca-Cola Life.

While EverSweet is chemically identical to the compounds found in the stevia leaf, and Cargill will describe the sweetener as an ingredient that "exists in nature," it remains to be seen whether consumers will be satisfied.

“We actually have customers coming to us saying give me new no-calorie options,” Fabro said. "For consumers, taste is king.”

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