Could California become the sweetener capital?

It looks like sugar. Tastes like sugar. But it's not sugar. It's a natural sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant.

Stevia is 300-times sweeter than sugar and has no calories. Food manufacturers can't get enough of it to meet the demands of diet crazed consumers. More than 600 products already contain stevia. Mostly beverages like flavored water, sports drinks, and soft drinks. It is usually listed as "Reb A" in the ingredients list.

Now Yuba City-based "Stevia First" is hoping to revolutionize the sweetener industry with "Reb D."

"Unlike artificial sweeteners, these are molecules that taste really good," said Jeremiah Mann. He sees a big future in stevia plants.

He is in charge of operations at "Stevia First", a public company about to bring large scale stevia production to California.

He is working with local farmers to grow stevia here. It's an attractive crop to farmers because the leaves can be harvested after a year and multiple times a season.

"We believe that stevia is going to be a highly profitable crop in California," said Mann.

There's big money to be made in sweeteners. It's a global market estimated to be around $60 billion. The World Health Organization estimates that stevia could eventually replace 20 percent to 30 percent of all diet sweeteners worldwide. Most of the stevia currently produced comes from China.

Stevia popped up in health food stores in 1995 when the United States' Food and Drug Administration first allowed it to be imported. In 2008, the agency added stevia to the list of food additives generally recognized as safe.

Because stevia has only been in the U.S. market a few years, only a couple hundred acres have been planted across the country. One hundred acres were harvested last year near Fresno. The production proved the plant could be produced on a large scale in the Golden State.

The leaves are spread out to dry as soon as they are harvested. Once they are dry, they are shipped overseas for processing. Stevia First hopes to take out the middle man and eventually grow hundreds of acres here in California. They also plan on refining it here.

Robert Brooke is the Chief Executive Officer for Stevia First. He says, "So what we are doing at Stevia First, is working to dramatically expand stevia leaf production in California and create a more reliable global supply of stevia."

Stevia First hopes to have its first commercially available stevia sweeteners on store shelves later this year.

written and produced by Ken Miguel

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