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A Sneak Peek Into the Growth-bound Stevia Market FSSAI permitted the use of stevia in food & beverages in 2015

By Aastha Singal

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Indians are moving towards a healthier lifestyle, a necessity borne out of the awareness around health & fitness today. With obesity, anxiety, depression and other diseases occurring due to horrid eating habits the nation has come to accept, the need to chuck the junk and sweets out of our lives has become apparent. To cater to the requisite, Indians are willing to pay a premium if need be.

Enters Stevia - a naturally occurring sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant species Stevia Rebaudiana, native to South America. The active compounds are steviol glycosides (mainly stevioside and rebaudioside), which have nearly 200 times the sweetness of sugar, are heat-stable, pH-stable and not fermentable.

Stevia's taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar and some of its extracts may have a bitter or liquorice-like aftertaste at high concentrations. Being almost zero calories with natural anti-oxidants, Stevia can be used as a healthy substitute in most sugar applications, including baking and cooking since it is inherently and naturally heat stable.

How did it begin?

Having acknowledged the huge potential lying in the global Stevia market in the early 2000s, Sourabh Agarwal established Stevia Biotech, one of the world's leading provider of natural, high-intensity sweeteners. As the know-how around the product increased, dialogues around its usage in daily eatables started making rounds but when the application for approval reached the authorities, they were unaware of its existence.

"In July 2009, they (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) passed a 2-line statement conveying that Stevia should not be sold in India unless they come up with the right regulations around it," Agarwal shared, further adding that the notification addressed Stevia as an artificial sweetener. In 2011, India was officially barred from using the sweetener.

Meanwhile, the global market grew accustomed to the benefits Stevia has to offer. In 2013, Coca-cola introduced their stevia-powered version, Coca-Cola Life which contained only 60 per cent of the calories of regular their drink. Simultaneously, Agarwal kept fighting to get Stevia legalized in India by educating the masses about the product's benefits.

Popularized as Mr Stevia, he today leads the 600-member strong India Stevia Association of India. The growing awareness around the market led FSSAI to reverse its decision to ban Stevia and permit its use in food and beverages in 2015.

Finding Footing

Brands like Amul, Mother Dairy and PepsiCo have also started using Stevia in a variety of their products. Malaysia-based PureCircle, the world's largest producer and innovator of stevia has pledged to invest $200 million in India over five years and is working with Dabur, Frooti and Haldiram to create their stevia-based variants. It also supplies stevia for Zydus's stevia-based sweetener SugarFree Green.

India has earned itself the infamous reputation of being "the diabetic capital of the world" due to excessive use of salt, sugar and fat in regular diets. A recent report titled "India: Health of the Nation's States — The India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative' stated that 72 million Indians suffer from Type-2 diabetes today, a figure expected to almost double to 134 million by 2025 if current dietary trends continue.

Leena Mittal, the Director at Herboveda India, the wholesale suppliers of stevia and stevia-based products said, "If you have diabetes, you don't have to have sugar with the high glycemic index, you can rather have Stevia." She justified that diabetic patients have prescribed sucralose (chemically produced) and aspartame (chlorinated sugar) which can harm their systems in some other way if not by aggravating the sugar levels.

Gaining Popularity

While Stevia can be a healthier alternative to sugar and other artificial sweeteners, the said market is at a nascent stage. Whenever a new entrant comes into the market, everybody has many inhibitions about the product before using it. Moreover, only small players come forward to test the field initially which works as a roadblock to it being popular.

Referring to the Stevia market, she stated, "Only big company that has come to the market with Stevia product is Sugarfree and they don't want to fully advertise it and kill their other products," adding that only when the bigger players will take the onus to lead the market will products like Stevia become popular.

Nikhil Rajpal & Gaurav Singla, the co-founders & Directors of Zevic India, the home-grown brand that offers Stevia based, natural, guilt-free indulgences believes that the fastest way to get everyone's attention towards Stevia is to bring in experts to share their feedback and experience. "Educating medical and general healthcare professionals about the side effects of artificial sweeteners and benefits of Stevia will easily help impact more lives."

The Plantation Summary

Indian cultivators had close to no traditional know how on Stevia plantation until 20 years back but the farmers got interested in growing it. Why? Because even though the input costs are high, once Stevia is planted, the returns accumulate over a period of 3-5 years. Moreover, owing to the growing attention to stevia today, it definitely makes for a good market to capture for the cultivators as well.

The market has witnessed an upsurge but India, specifically lacks in extraction plants for Stevia and the leave grown in the country are exported to Korea, China and Malaysia for extraction of stevia but looking at the growing demand, some small companies are coming up with such plants in India itself. However, the stevia market is growing leaps and bounds; a majority of India's population is still unaware of its implications.

Interestingly, Stevia is known as Meethi Tulsi or Meethi Patti in Hindi and Madhu Patra in Sanskrit. With the global F&B industry waging a war on sugar to fight obesity and reduce sugar levels across their portfolios, stevia is hoping to find a fertile field for sustainable growth. After all, it is a safer, better and direct alternative to artificial sweeteners and sugar as a regular table-top sweetener.

Aastha Singal

Entrepreneur Staff

Former Features Writer

A business journalist looking to find happiness in the world of startups, investments, MSMEs and more. Officially started her career as a news reporter for News World India, Aastha had short stints with NDTV and NewsX. A true optimist seeking to make a difference, she is a comic junkie who'd rather watch a typical Bollywood masala than a Hollywood blockbuster. 


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