The consumer promise of Reb M sweeteners

Reb M is the most sugar-like sweetening component in stevia, but is only found in low concentrations in the plant. Various technologies have changed that and these ingredients are now hitting the industrial and consumer markets.

Purecane is a new sweetener brand available in the US via Amyris, a global company that uses synthetic biology to create sustainable food and beauty ingredients. It uses yeast to ferment sugarcane and create Reb M in high concentrations.

Amyris recently signed an agreement with ingredients giant Ingredion, which is the exclusive commercialisation partner for Reb M. Under the agreement, Ingredion will take a minority ownership stake in Amyris’ Reb M manufacturing facility in Brazil. The two companies also have an R&D agreement to advance the development of sustainably sourced and zero-calorie sweeteners, as well as other types of ingredients created through fermentation.

Purecane is concentrating on being a consumer-facing brand and, in particular, is getting in front of home bakers both on store shelves and through e-commerce, It has won several consumer awards, including being named a finalist in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2021 list, and receiving an Amazon’s Choice badge for being a product with fast delivery and high customer reviews.

“Consumers want to cut down on sugar. But as more natural substitutes are being developed and appearing on store shelves people are still not willing to use them to bake,” says Daya Fields, president of Purecane. “Many tend to have a taste that is different from sugar. And, with the renewed popularity of home baking during the pandemic, that’s a problem in need of a solution.”

Because of its great success in the consumer space, Purecane is also looking to further establish itself there, as well as with food service and wholesaler operations.

The process to get Reb M is complicated, no matter how it’s done

Reb M is either extracted from stevia leaves or made through a chemical conversion. In the most direct way, the leaves are steeped in hot water and the sweeteners, called glycosides, are filtered out.

Most stevia varieties don’t have much naturally occurring Reb M, which means it often takes a lot of plants to get a large amount of the sweetener. PureCircle — a pioneer in the stevia space acquired by Ingredion last year — bred the StarLeaf variety to naturally contain more Reb M.

Producing stevia via enzymatic conversion (also known as bioconversion) involves using genetically modified yeast to scale up the best-tasting rebaudioside molecules found in the stevia leaf although the GM yeast is not present in the final ingredient.

This is used by, SweeGen, also in the US, to convert the more abundant Reb D into Reb M, but it has been fighting a long court battle over whether this method infringes on a PureCircle patent. 

Approved for the EU

In another important development, the European Commission recently approved use of the enzymatically converted stevia molecule, Reb M, for use in the EU.

Michael Halvorsen, senior director of business development, EMEA at Sweegen says: “The advantage of bioconversion is that we are able to make the best-tasting sweetener molecules because we start from the nature-based source, such as the stevia leaf, and use enzymatic conversion to convert compounds in the stevia leaf to best tasting sweetener molecules. It is remarkable how science has advanced us to uncover these precious rebaudiosides found in trace amounts of the stevia leaf.”

Another advantage of bioconversion is that it meets the requirements of the non-GMO Project Verified group, allowing for a certified non-GMO on pack claim. Sweegen’s Reb M is certified by the non-GMO Project Verified group in the US.

Back to Purecane… It uses a proprietary fermentation method to make the sweetener, getting the same end result. Amyris creates starting cultures for the process at its offices in California, and the actual fermentation happens where the sugarcane is grown in Brazil. According to the company, the process takes one and a half to two weeks.

By making Reb M through fermented sugarcane, Purecane uses about a tenth of the agricultural area as stevia producers and 40 times less water, Fields says. The spent sugarcane is repurposed into fertilizer used on the sugarcane fields, and Purecane product packaging is made of recycled sugarcane.

A sweet portfolio

Purecane currently has granulated and brown sweeteners — much like conventional sugar — as well as a powdery confectioner’s product. It comes in bags, cannisters and packets, and Fields says it works in many applications.

Different natural sweeteners have their limitations, with no single one able to do everything that sugar does. Fields says Purecane dissolves well and is a good fit in both hot and cold beverages. It also has been formulated for home baking, and Fields adds their food scientists have worked to mirror the taste and function of white, brown and powdered sugar. 

With Purecane having the potential to help consumers make healthier choices, Fields says the brand is looking at expansions beyond baking with science at the centre.

New products, which Fields said could be announced later this year, are “especially for those consumers who are looking for healthy choices in other areas of their lifestyle, where calories still count, carbs still count and taste counts — and the fact that it’s a clean formula.”