US firm partners with stevia maker

Updated: 2014-08-29 13:03

By Jack Freifelder in New York(China Daily USA)

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A partnership between a California-based biotechnology company and a leading Chinese producer of stevia plant extracts gives both groups a solid base for further research and development (R & D) in determining the potential value of stevia extraction, according to company executives.

Robert Brooke, CEO of the Stevia First Corp, said the alliance between his firm and Qualipride International Ltd would give the two businesses a long-term overseas partner in the stevia extract industry.

"Stevia cultivation is actively expanding into new regions and the market for this product is considerable," Brooke told China Daily. "We have established a productive relationship with Qualipride and our distribution agreement provides significant benefits. And as this expansion increases, there will be improvements in the agricultural practices due to shared insights and tools."

On Tuesday, Stevia First Corp, a California-based agricultural biotechnology company, announced a series of distribution and licensing agreements with Qualipride, China's leading producer of refined purified steviol glycosides.

Stevia, an herb native to South America, has become an increasingly popular player in the food and beverage industry due to its unique position as an all-natural zero-calorie sweetener.

And steviol glycosides are the sweet compounds contained within the leaves of the stevia plant.

A press release announcing the deal said the two groups "signed definitive agreements" with one another, giving US firm Stevia First exclusive rights to distribute Qualipride's stevia seed, leaf and extract products outside of China.

The terms of the partnership stipulate that Stevia First can make use of its Chinese counterpart's "proprietary methods of stevia extraction and refining".

And as part of the pact, several Qualipride officials, including Dong Yuejin, the company president, will be joining Stevia First as part of the latter's newly revised management team.

Dong, who joined Stevia as an advisory board member in 2012, said his company is "eager" to take the initial steps in its most recent partnership with Stevia First.

"Our proven ability to deliver on large orders, combined with a mutual interest in long-term R&D, is a powerful combination," Dong said in a Tuesday press release.

Stevia First, founded in 2007 and based in Yuba City, California, focuses on the large-scale industrial production of stevia. Qualipride, which maintains its headquarters in Zibo, Shandong province, has been China's leading producer of pure stevia extracts for the better part of the last two decades.

"[Stevia] was approved by the FDA in 2008 and in Europe in 2011, but in the world of sweeteners stevia is relatively new," Rachel Cheatham, executive director of the Oakbrook, Illinois-based Global Stevia Institute said in a Thursday interview with China Daily.

"If we can take an ingredient like stevia and put it in a product to cut the calories down by a quarter, a third or maybe even a half - and still give the consumers the sweet taste they expect and want - then it's a win," she said.

Information from the Stevia First website shows that the global sweetener market in 2010, including sugar, had an estimated value of $58.3 billion.

And estimates from the World Health Organization forecast that stevia could eventually replace between 20 percent and 30 percent of all dietary sweeteners.

Though stevia is cultivated mainly in China, Paraguay, Kenya and the US, Cheatham said stevia farming is also "increasing in many other parts of the world."

A Wednesday report in the Sacramento Business Journal said "more than 80 percent of stevia is cultivated in China".

"China is one of the main global growers of stevia," Cheatham said, "but the US is picking up. Knowing how to get the crop to be most productive for growth is key, and that expertise is held in different companies around the globe."

"Having said that, we're still in the early years here and there is a lot of development in determining how [stevia] works best," she said.