In this exclusive interview, Robert Brooke, CEO of Stevia First Corp., gives us the scoop on stevia. Robert Brooke discusses the changes the food and beverage industry are currently undergoing with the introduction of the stevia leaf into various products, the benefits this sweetener has for consumers and how Stevia First Corp. is at the forefront of these changes.
Do you think we could start with an overview of Stevia First Corp. and what stevia is?
Robert Brooke: We are a California-based agricultural biotech company focused on the industrial-scale production of stevia. Stevia is a zero-calorie natural sweetener that provides a solution for reducing calorie intake and dependence on sugary drinks. It also provides an economically viable alternative for artificial sweeteners.
Roughly three in five Americans believe that artificial sweeteners are unsafe or only somewhat safe. Currently, large food and beverage companies are starting to introduce en masse products that are formulated using stevia. What we at Stevia First Corp. are looking to do is to be a very modern, reliable and scalable producer of stevia to meet the market needs of today.
Can you tell us a little more about stevia and what is so groundbreaking about the way your company is approaching its production, as well as the current market?
RB: What is so novel about the way we are approaching production is the fact that we are using fermentation to produce stevia. We are looking to the future, to the next generation of stevia products. What is now in the market, Rebaudioside A, or Reb-A, is a good product and there have a been a lot of product introductions with it, but we are looking to bring to market something that is more desirable.
We are experimenting with different glycosides like Reb-D or Reb-X, which are less bitter and have different taste qualities. The sweetness is different and has a different intensity. Stevia today isn't a single sweetener, it is actually a group of sweeteners. Different combinations may suit a different array of consumers, and we are working on finding just the right mix of stevia glycosides that can please consumers.
What do you think the benefits of a sweetener like stevia are for people who suffer from conditions like diabetes?
RB: Stevia has been a popular choice in the diabetes community for a long time. The use of the stevia leaf itself was pioneered by many diabetes patients in the U.S. 10 or 15 years ago, before mainstream brands like PureVia. The benefits for those with diabetes are twofold, I think.
Stevia does not have a glycemic load and there are no calories. Therefore, it is a great option for diabetes patients who want to get some sweetness in a drink or in a tabletop sweetener without the risks. The other aspect is that it is preventative medicine. You can reduce the role that sugar plays in your caloric intake, and that has increasingly been recognized as an important step in preventing adult-onset diabetes.
In what ways do you think stevia could help parents manage their children's sugar and calorie intake?
RB: In terms of childhood obesity, stevia can become a really powerful tool for parents. Especially now, when everyone, not just parents, is trying to reduce their calorie intake. I am of the mindset that you need to do more than just wean your children off sugar and soda. I believe that we should also steer clear of sugary fruit juices, anything that is spiked with sugar.
One of the many reasons companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and all other big food and beverage companies, are facing a public health crisis is because there is mounting evidence that obesity and diabetes are directly related to sugar intake. Therefore, they have to take drastic action and for them a fantastic solution is taking the calories out with something like stevia. Some companies are already experimenting with this idea. For example, Coca-Cola has reformulated their flagship brand Sprite in the UK. It has resulted in a 30 percent reduction of calorie intake.
What would you say to your potential consumers, those who are looking to the future production of a tabletop product? Will they be able to enjoy stevia sweeteners the same way they enjoy sugar?
RB: That is the direction we are going in the overall industry. I do not believe we are there yet with what we currently know as stevia, which is glycoside Reb-A. For many consumers, the gold standard may be for a product to be as sugar-like as possible. What we want to do then is create a sweetness intensity that matches sugar.
Every person is different; some people do not mind an aftertaste, some don't mind the bitterness either. Nonetheless, with the next generation of stevia sweeteners, we are looking toward making a blend that is as sugar-like as possible.
What are your plans for Stevia First Corp. in the very near future?
RB: What we are aiming to do is enable the mainstream introduction of stevia, and enable large product launches of these healthy innovations via companies like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. We believe that we can change the sweetener market for the better, and provide a healthier, more natural product with stevia. Part of the reason why stevia is being considered the 'Holy Grail' of sweeteners is because it can compete on so many different fronts with what is already on the market today. It does this on taste, on consumer preferences and values, cost and reliability. We are working to make that even better.
For example, with artificial sweeteners, many people complain about the chemical aftertaste, but with stevia we are finding that we can create a taste that's closer to sugar. Furthermore, stevia has a longer track record than artificial sweeteners. Itâ€™s more natural having been used for 40 years in Japan and for hundreds of years in South America. Lastly, we are working on being a scalable and reliable producer of stevia that can unlock new growth and changes within the food and beverage industry.