With more people turning away from sugar and artificial sweeteners bad for their health, some Greek farmers have for the past seven years already picked up on that to change from growing tobacco to the natural sweetener stevia. That came on the suggestion of mechanical engineer Christos Stamatis, who had seen how successful that was for six California tobacco growers who had also started to cultivate the stevia plant that is now being showcased in soft drinks and other foods as a chic option.
An extract of the plant's leaves makes a natural, calorie-free sugar substitute. It has been around for centuries, but has only started to enter the mainstream in the past 10 years, said the BBC in a feature on what Greek farmers are doing to catch up to the craze.
Stamatis sought out farmers in his native region of Fthiotida – in fields or during their breaks in the local cafes – to convince them to plant stevia instead of their less profitable tobacco crop, and it worked.
Some 150 farmers each contributed 500 euros ($555) towards setting up the Stevia Hellas Co-operative and how sweet that’s been for them, as well as consumers anxious about the detriments of sugar in their diets.
"We discovered crowdsourcing long before it became mainstream in my village," Stamatis said. "People have power and we took advantage of it,” creating the first business in Europe to produce the product, a venture that now has 300 workers as its use grows fast.
The cooperative was slow to be profitable until stevia caught on, finally breaking even at the end of 2018 and set to make money this year by selling liquid extracts and powders under its own brand name, La Mia Stevia, trying to take a dominant position in what could be an expanding market bringing competition.
Beyond Greece, the coop sells exports in bulk to western Europe, Canada, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, with American consumers especially keen on sugar alternatives, a trend that drove Coca-Cola and other soft drink producers to use stevia.
There’s a huge upside to getting in on the ground, so to speak, with global sales expected to nearly double to $818 million by the end of 2024, a study by the consultant group Research and Markets estimated, putting the Greek growers in a prime position.
Still, that’s far below the artificial sweetener market despite what critics said are health hazards for those products equal to sugar’s problems for the teeth and body. Stevia is well behind the use of aspartame or sucralose, a $2.7 billion annual market.
And despite health fears for sugar, producers still sell about $89 billion worth of the stuff in each year in various forms from refined white to brown to raw, although it’s been slowing as buyers look for healthier options. Andrew Ohmes, President of the International Stevia Council said that the product has to catch on more in the public imagination but is confident people will begin using more as worries over sugar increase.
"Other sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose have been around far longer but stevia's consumption will be growing 19-21% over the next five to 10 years,” he told the BBC, despite a cost disadvantage: stevia is a little pricier but it’s being advertised on cans of coke and other soft drinks, showcased as being green.
Stamatis said while stevia powder costs about 120 euros ($133) per kilo compared to 83 euro cents (92 cents) for sugar, he notes that it’s actually cheaper in the long run and for use because it’s 200 times sweeter, requiring less to be sweetly effective.
Stevia supporters also point out that it’s more environmentally-friendly with a water footprint that is 96% lower than cane sugar, and 92% lower than beet sugar while requiring 20 percent less land to cultivate.
The Stevia Hellas Cooperative is now aiming for further growth. "Our next plan is to form a stevia supply chain with Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, France, or Portugal," Stamatis said, noting Greece’s climate is perfect. "We have a unique climate for cultivating stevia," he said.
There are some problems though. "Stevia extract, unlike its chemical counterparts such as aspartame, does not form acid in the body," said certified nutritionist Kimberly Snyder. "Nor does it promote heart disease and tooth decay, and it has no impact on blood sugar levels…But the powder or liquid drops at grocery stores are processed with additives that may cause bloating, diarrhea, or headaches,” she said, undercutting its benefits, and because it’s far sweeter than sugar there are worries it could create cravings.