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May 4, 2010

Plant science works to improve production of natural sweetener

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The world’s leading supplier of all-natural, zero-calorie sweeteners is tapping Michigan State University to help develop sweeter, more robust varieties of a South American plant.

PureCircle Ltd. engaged MSU Department of Horticulture researchers to help breed proprietary varieties of Stevia rebaudiana. Native to Paraguay, this offshoot of the chrysanthemum family has been known for centuries as ‘sweet leaf’ by the Guarani Indians.

Stevia is growing in popularity as the source of a high-intensity natural sweetener in products ranging from soft drinks to yogurt, from some of the world’s leading food and beverage manufacturers. The hardy plant requires little chemical pesticide, making it more economically viable in subsistence-level communities. The company sources its Stevia leaf from the rural farmers in Thailand, Indonesia, China, Paraguay and Kenya.

“The incorporation of MSU’s leading-edge research combined with PureCircle’s industry leading, proprietary varieties will ensure that we continue to lead the industry with sustainable agriculture while improving the economics for both farmers and our customers,” PureCircle CEO Magomet Malsagov said. “The results will aid in PureCircle’s continued worldwide expansion of Reb-A volumes as well as increase our leadership in the next generation of steviol glycoside sweeteners.”

Rebaudioside-A is the single-molecule sweetener found in the Stevia plant. High-purity Reb-A was cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in beverages and foods in 2008 and, on a weight basis, is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It is all-natural, calorie-free and has a low glycemic index – meaning glucose is released more gradually into the blood stream. Heat stability makes it suitable for cooking as well.

The joint plant breeding program will use conventional methods to develop improved varieties, using MSU’s world-leading plant science assets.

“We are excited to partner with an industry-leading company like PureCircle to bring our cutting-edge knowledge and experience in horticultural plant breeding and genetics to this exciting new crop,” said horticulture assistant professor Ryan Warner, lead researcher on the project. “This is a great example of combining the strengths of industry and academia to bring value to consumers.”

PureCircle is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with U.S. headquarters in Chicago. It promotes a commitment to environmental and economic sustainability, including recycling leaf mulch plant waste from its production facilities into fertilizer and biogas for electricity generation.

The agreement was facilitated by MSU Technologies, Michigan State’s technology transfer office.


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.