Of the 1,000 UAE respondents to YouGov’s recent questioning, 75% said they would choose a naturally-sourced sweetener as a sugar replacement.
This data will provide happy reading for PureCircle, which commissioned the market research. They also reveal that 45% of residents were familiar with stevia’s properties as a sweetener, and 74% said they would likely buy products containing the leaf’s extracts.
It is the first time PureCircle has surveyed the UAE market, where it is a reasonably fresh entrant. And what is particularly interesting about the YouGov figures, if you compare them to a similar survey carried out in Britain four years ago, is the scale of stevia awareness.
The 2013 market research found that just 8% of consumers were familiar with stevia. This UK figure now stands at around 60% — just 15% ahead of the UAE’s virgin market.
“We think that effectively 45% awareness in the UAE is a really good number,” says Olivier Kutz, PureCircle’s director of sales in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
"It still means we have about 55% of consumers who we need to educate and inform — and that’s effectively what we do. Nothing wrong with that at all,” he adds.
Malaysian-headquartered, London-listed and commercially driven from America, PureCircle has become such a well-known name in natural sweeteners that it is easy to dismiss the fact that it has only been listed for a decade.
In that time, it has invested more than US$300m in stevia research and developed a wide range of ingredient solutions for food and beverage manufacturers worldwide. It supplies stevia extracts to some of the world’s biggest manufacturers and has operations now in five continents.
But the Middle East, with its sweet-toothed population, high incidence of lifestyle diseases and growing sugar-tax uptake, has only recently come under PureCircle’s radar.
“We are still a fairly new company, and there are regions of the globe we haven’t really explored fully, and this is one of them,” says Kutz, adding that the company now has distribution deals in place across the region, and has been making its first inroads into the market.
By insisting that its distributors operate their own development labs, PureCircle already offers stevia variations on mango and rose water — two local favourites — to illustrate how it understands the demands of the region. Through these and other flavours, it hopes to persuade customers that they can reformulate their products with less sugar at a time when the regulatory mix is changing.
“Governments are looking at soft drink taxes, as is the case in Saudi and the UAE, so for us it’s all about being there to help food and beverage manufacturers do what they do. And as consumers have told us, they like natural, so we think we have a good opportunity here,” notes Kutz.
“We’re developing local flavours like rose water and we’re learning the market from a technical perspective, and what’s required for local tastebuds. At the same time, in parallel, we are a total solution company, so we also research consumers so we can talk to our prospect customers and tell them exactly what end-users think about stevia, sweeteners, and natural versus artificial debate.”
Despite the impressive consumer awareness of stevia highlighted by the survey figures, Kutz always recommends that his customers tinker with their labelling so that they can reinforce on stevia’s natural credentials.
Under European claims regulations, for example, stevia must be listed as “sweetener: steviol glycosides”, though a manufacturer is well within its rights to add a voluntary reference in brackets, such as “stevia leaf extracts”.
This will serve to reinforce the natural nature of the sweetener, and is both informative and accurate, he says.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and making processed food and drinks healthier in the Middle East — a very conservative market where consumers are generally averse to change — will be a long-drawn-out process with multiple periods of transition.
Most stevia products will retain some elements of sugar, whether it is from fruit or added sugar, and this will facilitate the transition in the form of a gradual reduction.
The challenge for PureCircle is to recreate a formerly sugary product’s taste, and its success will be judged by this factor — especially in the Middle East, where people like things sweet. Consumers there are traditional, they don’t like change, and the company knows that any difference in taste will be perceived the wrong way.
“You don’t necessarily have to shout about it on the label, or position it as a diet product. You just reduce sugar and change the nutrition on the back label, and (it) will always be a continuous process,” says Kutz.