Table top sweeteners Truvia and PureVia have had a solid year. But the reaction from manufacturing has been less enthusiastic

For an ingredient dubbed the ‘holy grail’ of sweeteners, stevia has had a mixed first year in the UK.

Given the green light by EU regulators on 19 November, manufacturers wasted little time getting products to market, to take advantage of the plant extract’s natural low-calorie sweetness.

In the first week of December, the table top sweetener brands Truvia and PureVia were already on shelf. Installing a stevia-based lake on the roof of Selfridges, Silver Spoon’s Truvia could hardly have made a grander entrance.

A year on and the table top sweetener brands can celebrate a year of solid progress. But enthusiasm for stevia as an ingredient in other food and drink products has been far more muted.

Sales of stevia-based table top sweeteners reached £3m over the past year and brand owners are confident the figure will grow [Nielsen 52 w/e 13/10/2012].

“We’ve been very pleased with how stevia-based products have developed in the UK,” says Odile Marriott, UK marketing director of PureVia maker Merisant. “Products derived from stevia now account for 6.5% of the total low-calorie sweetener market, which we expect to grow as people become more aware of the category.”

In March, Merisant had predicted stevia would win 15%-18% of the market by the end of the year. That now looks a tad optimistic but few are betting against continued growth. “The French model is the one to look at. They approved stevia early - at the end of 2009 - and the market there is still growing fast. I’d expect the UK to follow suit,” says Mintel analyst David Turner.

Stevia-based sweeteners accounted for 30% of the table-top market two years after launch in France [IRI France] and innovation has spread into other food and drink categories too. Coca-Cola relaunched Fanta Still with stevia, Danone brought out DanVia yoghurts and Carrefour even released some own-label stevia juices.

Stevia-based innovation in the UK has been largely on a par with other European countries since EU authorisation was given. The UK accounted for 7.1% of all stevia-based European launches so far this year, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database.

However, there have been comparatively few big launches outside the table top market in the UK. The biggest have come in the drinks market, led by Britvic’s flavoured water brand SoBe V Water, which was reformulated with stevia in April.

Despite a £2m marketing push, the relaunch failed to convince Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which slashed distribution of the new version, causing annual sales to drop from £3.5m to £1m [Nielsen 52 w/e 13/10/12].

Rather than risk upsetting existing customers with a new flavour, other brands have had more success bringing out entirely new products with stevia. The most notable example is Del Monte, which launched a Naturally Light range of juices in August that immediately gained listings at Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Consumer awareness of stevia in the UK is strong, with 25% of the population having heard of the sweetener, according to the supplier Pure Circle. Excluding France, which authorised stevia early, among EU countries awareness is higher only in Germany, where stevia has been sold for two years as a dental product.

That will be an encouragement for manufacturers looking to launch stevia-based products in the coming year. Turner expects Danone and Unilever, which have launched stevia-based lines in other EU countries, to target the UK soon.

It is difficult to bet against stevia. Investors certainly aren’t. Shares in UK-listed stevia supplier Pure Circle shot up from 90p to 240p this year.