The rise of stevia as a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners has generated a huge amount of attention in recent years, particularly after green Coca-Cola Life and Pepsi True cans started appearing on supermarket shelves across America and Europe.
However, stevia’s notoriously bitter aftertaste has created problems for many beverage businesses, with Coca-Cola being forced to backtrack from substituting stevia for sugar in its popular Vitaminwater brand after an avalanche of customer complaints.
Beverage companies and stevia manufacturers alike are trapped in a kind of modern alchemy, trying to find the perfect blend of ingredients that removes stevia’s unpleasant taste without compromising its advantages as a low-calorie, natural product.
This search for the stevia ‘philosopher’s stone’ has so far produced only mixed results, and an increasing number of brands are instead turning to a little-known fruit to solve their problems.
Luo Han Guo & Mogroside V
Luo han guo (also known as monk fruit or Buddha fruit), like stevia, is cultivated almost exclusively in China. In fact, siraitia grosvenorii, the vine from which luo han guo grows, is found only in a tiny pocket of northern Thailand and southern China, where the warm, humid climate is perfect for cultivating this difficult-to-grow plant.
This fruit has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a range of ailments including diabetes and obesity, and most of the luo han guo produced in China are still dried for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) today.
But in recent times the luo han guo has also started to attract the attention of the global food industry thanks to the natural glycosides—named mogrosides—contained within its flesh. Mogroside V in particular has remarkable properties: natural, up to 350 times sweeter than sugar, and, crucially, with no unpleasant aftertaste. These make it an excellent substitute for artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, which are becoming less popular with consumers due to perceived health issues associated with consuming them.
Indeed, though research is still at an early stage, it appears that mogroside V may be positively healthy, backing up the Chinese belief that eating luo han guo can boost longevity. A natural antioxidant, studies suggest that consuming mogrosides also has positive effects on subjects’ immune systems, livers, and blood sugar levels.
China’s Mogroside V Production And Growing Overseas Demand
Unsurprisingly, there is huge interest among food companies in this almost-too-good-to-be-true sweetener, with Procter & Gamble becoming the first company to patent a method of extracting mogrosides from the fruit in 1995.
Since then, mogroside V production in China has developed into a full-blown, rapidly-growing industry. Total mogroside V production capacity in China grew almost 80 percent last year, from 290 tonnes per annum (t/a) in 2013 to 520 t/a, and output also grew over 50 percent year-on-year to reach 260 tonnes, according to market intelligence firm CCM. There are also several new projects currently under construction in Guangxi and Hunan provinces.
Demand appears to be growing even more rapidly as more and more food and beverage companies introduce products containing natural ingredients. Over 180 new products containing mogrosides were launched in the US during the first five months of 2015 alone, according to InnovaDatabase, and some of the companies using it include Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Chobani, Uni-President, and Aji Ichiban.
As this list suggests, this demand is coming overwhelmingly from overseas, and currently over 90 percent of the mogroside V produced in China each year is exported, with the vast majority going to the US.
Chinese producers are also keen to open up other foreign markets, with Japan, South Korea, and the European Union the main targets. To take the lead on this issue, Chinese companies have begun trying to gain Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) certification for mogroside V.
Rising Mogroside Market
The mogroside industry that is emerging is therefore an interesting hybrid, with production necessarily centred in China but much of the demand, and capital, coming from overseas. However, the industry is likely to become much less dependent on the international market as time goes on.
Many of the trends driving demand for natural sweeteners overseas—rising levels of obesity and diabetes, and an increasing preference for organic ingredients among consumers—are also present in China, and CCM predicts that Chinese demand for mogrosides will more than quadruple by 2019, making the industry less dependent on foreign buyers.
Downstream demand for the sweetener is also likely to broaden in terms of market sector. At the moment, 80 percent of the mogroside V produced in China is used in the beverage industry, according to CCM. However, this figure is likely to decline over the next few years as more food products are expected to incorporate it too. Mogroside V has regulatory approval to be used as an additive in any food or beverage product without limit in China, and CCM believes that there is great potential for the product in the health foods and luxury foods market in particular.
A Seemingly Bittersweet Future For Mogroside V
With the demand picture looking so positive, the future appears sweet for the fledgling mogrosides industry. However, there remain several obstacles that must first be overcome if mogroside V is to emerge as a mainstream ingredient on a similar level to stevia, the output of which is currently over eleven times larger.
Land Area For Luo Han Guo Cultivation
Guangxi in China is one of the areas where luo han guo
can be grown.
The most pressing issue is supplying the vast quantities of luo han guo needed to produce mogrosides on that scale. Producing one kilogram of mogroside V requires over 2,000 fresh luo han guo on average, making production a labour-intensive and costly process.
Finding the extra land needed to make sure luo han guo supplies keep up with rising demand could also be a challenge. As aforementioned, luo han guo will only grow in very specific climatic conditions, typically with high humidity and warm temperatures of around 22-28 percent, which is why over 80 percent of China’s luo han guo are currently grown in just three counties – Yongfu, Lingui, and Longsheng – in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
With only a handful of provinces in China’s Southwestern corner (Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Guangxi) possessing a suitable climate and with land always scarce in a country with over 20 percent of the world’s population but only seven percent of the world’s arable land, there may be limits to how much mogroside producers can expand luo han guo production.
Having said that, the total area of land used for luo han guo has risen steadily in recent years even within Yongfu, Lingui, and Longsheng counties, suggesting that there is still plenty of scope for further expansion. The planting area has increased almost 13 percent per year in Yongfu since 2002, just under nine percent annually in Lingui since 2011, and around four percent per year in Longsheng since 2004.
There is also potential for significant chunks of land to be found outside Guangxi. According to Herbridge Media, about 13,000 hectares of land in Hunan was recently identified as suitable for growing luo han guo, more than the total area used in the three counties put together.
Volatility Of Luo Han Guo Supply
Another problem facing the mogroside industry is the sometimes volatile nature of the supply of luo han guo due to the traditional methods still employed by most Chinese farmers. Few farmers detoxify and cultivate seedlings, or employ anaphase management, which can reduce yields.
Perhaps more seriously, many farmers also fail to clear their fields during winter, which can sometimes lead to severe outbreaks of pests and diseases. In 2010, for example, over 80 percent of the fruit grown in Yongfu was affected by insects, reducing that year’s luo han huo harvest by over 30 percent. If the mogroside producers can encourage farmers to adopt more advanced methods, this could help increase farmers’ yields and stabilise the companies’ raw materials supplies.
Pricey Tag On Mogroside V
Finally, the energy-intensive process for extracting mogroside V from the raw fruit also needs to be improved to reduce production costs. Luo han guo is also a seasonal fruit, and there is currently no mature technology for extracting high-quality mogrosides from dried fruit, which limits producers’ options and raises costs further.
Due to the high production costs and difficulties in supplying sufficient luo han guo, mogroside V is extremely expensive compared to other sweeteners, limiting its application range. A quarter of mogroside V prices are currently around RMB1,200 (US$188) per kg, double the price of Reb A 95 percent stevia, which is itself considered a pricey ingredient.
Reducing the price would make mogrosides a much more competitive product, though CCM is not optimistic about the industry’s ability to do this. An alternative solution could be to mix mogrosides with other products, such as stevia. From that perspective, mogrosides could turn out not to be a rival to stevia, but instead the missing ingredient that the stevia industry has been searching for—a natural product able to smooth over stevia’s bitter aftertaste.
If these hurdles can be overcome, and more countries approve the use of mogrosides as a food additive, the little luo han guo could soon be big business.