PureCircle has partnered with tobacco farmers in the US to commercially grow its StarLeaf stevia to meet growing demand for food and beverage products using the plant-based sweetener.
Malaysia-based PureCircle said it previously worked with farmers earlier this year to plant and harvest StarLeaf stevia in small trials in North Carolina and scaled up production after the pilot was successful.
“The trials this fall confirmed stevia grows well in soil and climate conditions that were conductive to growing tobacco,” it said.
It added that like tobacco, stevia grows best in a subtropical environment with adequate rainfall, minimal frost and a lot of sunshine.
Jackson Pillow, communications manager at PureCircle, said the partnership offered tobacco farmers a chance to increase their returns and productivity as tobacco demand declines.
“Stevia has been able to provide an important role in biodiversity because it requires little land and allows farmers to diversify their crops,” he said.
“Our goal is to expand dramatically to major commercial production of stevia for next planting season.”
James Foxton, vice president of agricultural operations at PureCircle, said the new partnership with North Carolina tobacco farmers was also aimed at “expanding stevia production and establishing a North American stevia supply chain for PureCirle”.
“This programme will boost the economic prospects of agriculture in that state by providing a viable alternative to tobacco,” he said.
Last year, PureCircle was hit with a customs ban in the US after claims its product was produced using convict labour at Inner Mongolia Hengzheng Group Baoanzhao Agricultural and Trade.
At the time the company, which describes itself as the world’s leading producer of stevia, said the US order was based on false allegations and it was committed to human rights and proper use of labour.
The company said its StarLeaf stevia, which will be planted in US farms, is its latest sweetener with 20 times the amount of sweet-tasting steviol glycosides than standard stevia, which will be used in the reduced-calorie food and beverage market.
“StarLeaf stevia will help companies accelerate launches of reduced and zero-calorie products by making available sweeteners with the most sugar-like taste derived from a plant-based source,” it said.
The percentage of beverage and food products launched containing stevia increased by 13% between 2016 and 2017, with carbonated soft drinks containing stevia accounting for 9% of the growth, according to market research group Mintel.
Coca-Cola, one of PureCircle’s biggest customers, announced it is set to launch a 100% stevia sweetened soda early next year.
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