Stevia has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity on the global stage over the past four years. A new study by leading food and drink consultancy Zenith International estimates that worldwide sales of stevia reached 3,500 metric tons in 2010, a 27 percent increase on 2009, taking its overall market value to $285 million.

“As rising levels of obesity and diabetes continue to dominate headlines, there has never been so much emphasis on reducing our caloric intake as well as consuming healthier foods and beverages,” commented Zenith Senior Market Analyst Anya Hembrough. “After persistent efforts by key producers, legislators worldwide are finally giving the green light to this new zero-calorie sweetener.”

Originating from Paraguay, where stevia leaf has been valued for centuries because of its sweetening properties, stevia has been used as a sweetener in Japan and parts of South America for decades. The high intensity sweetener offers a sweetening power some three hundred times that of table sugar, without adding any calories. Widely used as a tabletop sweetener, stevia is increasingly being recognized as an ingredient in finished products - in particular soft drinks - thanks to its versatility. However, it is the ingredient’s all-natural credentials which make it stand out from the crowd.

The turning point in stevia’s fortunes came in 2008 when steviol glycosides, the sweetening components of the leaf, were deemed to be safe and Rebaudioside A, one particular steviol glycoside, was granted GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) status in the United States. Since then, approval by legislators across the world has opened the door to new formulations and reformulations of foods and beverages with zero or reduced calorie content. Its status as a global ingredient was secured with its incorporation into leading soft drinks brands manufactured by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

If the rise in stevia has been impressive to date, the future looks even more promising, with approval still pending in a number of regions, and European authorization widely anticipated for later in 2011. 

Zenith forecasts that the global market for stevia will reach 11,000 metric tons by 2014, equivalent to $825 million by value.