Pioneering project to develop a South African stevia

In a timeous and topical development, Paarl-based Afriplex, well established beneficiator of indigenous plants, has announced it is embarking on a project to locally cultivate and process stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), viewed by many as a Holy Grail of non-nutritive sweeteners.

“There’s long been a drive to find alternative and natural low kilojoule sweeteners to replace traditional sweetened beverages and food – and there is now new urgency with proposed sugar taxes here in South Africa and many other countries,” says Afriplex’s technical director, Donnie Malherbe.

He says Afriplex believes the successful execution of this pilot project could position South Africa to develop the agricultural know-how and technological capacity to execute full-scale commercialisation of stevia.

“In addition to assisting economic growth, the project will allow South Africa to share in and contribute to the latest development in the food and beverage innovation.

“Apart from the economic advantages, the project is also of strategic value to the country especially when viewed against the impact of obesity-related ailments in South Africa.”

Malherbe explains that while the overall goal is to evaluate the agronomic potential, extraction and production efficiency and techno-economics for the commercial production of steviosides in South Africa, the project will also investigate sustainable production of steviosides for use in food and beverage applications.

He adds that various government and private sector role players are involved in the Afriplex-coordinated project, and that the target is to identify 10 000 hectares for future stevia propagation.

“The first phase of project is the execution of pilot trials in different regions in South Africa to find the best yield and quality of material. These will include the participation of commercial as well as small farmers.

“With long-term viability and success, the involvement of local communities in plant propagation, combined with the extraction and product formulation activities, will result in significant job creation.”

While the main objective of the project will be to demonstrate the agro-economic feasibility to grow and process stevia successfully in Southern Africa, Afriplex will be also develop the processing technology to achieve high local content.

Coke LifeBackground to stevia

The plant is currently not commercially grown in Southern Africa, with the main international producers being China and India.

Stevia is the generic name for a sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana. The extract of the plant is accepted as a food additive and supplement.

The active compounds of stevia are the steviol glycosides comprising mainly of stevioside and rebaudioside. They have approximately 150 times the sweetness of sugar. As steviosides have a negligible effect on blood glucose, formulation with the ingredient makes stevia attractive to people on carbohydrate-controlled diets.

The plant originates from South America, where it has been consumed for more than 1,500 years by the local population.

In the early 1970s, sweeteners such as cyclamate and saccharin were gradually removed by multinational players in the F&B arena. This prompted the use of stevia extract as an alternative in countries like Japan and leading to the first commercial stevia sweetener in Japan, produced by the Japanese firm Morita Kagaku Kogyo in 1971.

In the mid-1980s, stevia became popular in the US as ingredient in natural foods and health supplements, with the main selling point as a non-calorific beverage sweetener. This led to various international role-players investing it their own brands of stevioside sweeteners.

Today, stevia extracts and derivatives are produced industrially by many companies, and marketed under various trade names owned by multinational companies like Coca-Cola Company, Cargill and Pepsico.