But the growth will be driven by new brands and range extensions rather than reformulations of existing drinks and confectionery items, he predicts.
Stevia was last week approved by the European Commission. The product, derived from a herb native to South America, is already in use as a sweetener in the USA, Japan, China, Australia and, under special EU agreement, France.
David Jago, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, told foodmanufacture.co.uk: “We’ll see an explosion in new product activity – there’s no doubt about that. There are plenty of products out there in the pipeline just waiting to be launched.
“It’s going to be slow and steady rather than explosive growth but the big players are all going to get involved.”
Jago predicted that the bulk of the new product development activity would come from the drinks industry. But the bakery and confectionery sectors were also interested in using stevia, he added. Danone is already using stevia in yoghurts in the French market, where the ingredient has been allowed in pure form since 2009.
“It’s considerably easier to make a new product than to reformulate an existing brand,” Jago said.
“The big question is whether products are going to be able to label stevia as natural, and that’s still a grey area. If brands are unable to carry a ‘natural’ message, then that’s going to limit growth.”
He said companies may simply refer to “stevia leaf” to convey a natural message, even if they are banned from using the word “natural”. This has already happened in France “and will in itself speak volumes about naturalness to the consumer”.
He predicted that UK manufacturers will be keen to draw attention to stevia on their packaging, and this had already resulted in high consumer awareness in France. But he said that in the USA, some producers are now choosing to play down stevia as an ingredient.
A spokesman for Coca-Cola Great Britain said: “We will look at products where stevia extract delivers great taste and where consumers want reduced calories.
“Stevia producers will take the lead, such as the International Stevia Council, in promoting its benefits. But we will of course support education campaigns.”
Jago said there were “some wildly different predictions” about how valuable the stevia market would become in the UK and Europe. “In the US it’s become a $500M market in only three years. That’s pretty impressive,” he said.