While food and beverage developers wait with bated breath for the European Union to give its regulatory blessing to the sweet compounds in stevia (check back in fall 2011), a novel, new form of the sweet compounds found in the stevia leaf may be on the horizon.

This new "derived" form of the glycoside is not genetically modified, its inventors say, and it could provide a stable supply of the high intensity sweetener, which can be easily manipulated for different product applications.

For the past several years, Swiss biotech company Evolva has been working with  California ingredients research firmAbunda on this new ingredient. It is derived from baker's yeast, which has GRAS status in the United States.

"We are staying firmly in the confines of what can be done with these organisms in a fermentation system in the same way these are used to produce wine, beer, bread and countless other food and beverage products," said Paul Verbraeken,head of investor relations at Evolva. "We are confident our ingredient will be considered natural (and not GMO). We are not introducing any foreign genes into our products."

The advantage of the new ingredient, Verbraeken said, is that it "bypasses the complex logistics associated with the traditional cultivation, processing and refining of stevia plants."

"We have collaborated very successfully with Abunda in applying Evolva's technologies to the production of stevia ingredients by fermentation," said Jutta Heim, CSO of Evolva. "Over the next 12 to 18 months, our task on stevia is to further improve the yield and transfer to the scale-up phase, moving from the laboratory to production on a larger, pilot-plant scale. Full commercial-scale production is expected to take place in 2014/2015."

Under this new approach, stevia's whole spectrum of glycosides can be produced, which will allow manufacturers to use the blends best suited to application needs. By the time Evolva is ready to market its new ingredient, the company expects the full spectrum of steviol glycosides to have GRAS status as well as novel foods approval in the EU.

Stevia is a genus of about 240 species of herbs and shrubs that are part of the compositae family. The species Stevia rebaudiana has been used in native populations of South America for thousands of years as a natural sweetener. The sweetness, which is 300 times sweeter than sucrose, is derived from two glycoside compounds in the plant: stevioside and rebaudioside.

Stevia sales in Europe could outstrip U.S.

In April 2010, the European Food Safety Authority published a scientific opinion that steviol glycosides are safe for use in foods and beverages. In January 2011, EFSA published a second opinion. But full approval is still pending with the European Commission.

"European approval of steviol glycoside as an additive for food uses is likely to happen by the end of 2011," said Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director of theInternational Stevia Council, based in Belgium. "The International Stevia Council and its members, of which two are applicants of record, have continued to work in the past months to resolve all questions raised by the second opinion of EFSA."

Once approval happens in Europe, sales are expected to skyrocket. Regionwide approval is "widely anticipated for later this year,"agreed Anya Hembrough, senior market analyst for Zenith International, which recently completed a market research report on the sweetener. "With (Europe's) greater leaning toward natural products, some feel that this market could outstrip its North American counterpart in the future.”

European approval is expected to trigger "approval across Africa and the Middle East, and global approval is widely expected by the end of 2012," Hembrough said.

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