Michigan State University researchers will use a $3.2 million Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to help make stevia a viable crop in the United States.
Specifically, the team will work to improve the flavor of the low-calorie sweetener and find ways to help farmers effectively produce the leafy green perennial.
Consumer demand for domestically produced, good-tasting, low- and zero-calorie natural sweeteners has created a potential market opportunity for stevia. Most stevia consumed here is grown and bulk extracted in China; only a limited amount is grown in the United States.
MSU horticulturalist Ryan Warner will lead a team in exploring various aspects of stevia, including improving the plant’s flavor profile at the molecular level, examining consumer preferences, determining best farming practices and identifying conducive growing regions.
“As a crop, stevia is on the verge of being adopted more in the U.S.,” Warner said. “Food and beverage manufacturers who use stevia have expressed a desire for domestically sourced ingredients.”
Warner is focused on developing a genome sequence of stevia and conducting molecular breeding of the plant to better understand the production of the sweet-tasting compounds.
“Stevia produces at least 25 sweet-tasting compounds, which we collectively refer to as steviol glycosides,” Warner said. “The key with these better-tasting compounds is that they’re produced in much lower concentrations, so we are working to breed new varieties that produce more of these minor glycosides.”
Additional MSU scientists working on the project include Kevin Childs, Randy Beaudry, Sungeun Cho and Bridget Behe. Researchers at North Carolina State University, Alabama A&M University and Fort Valley State University also are part of the study.
“This is a broad-ranging project, but I think that we will really fill many holes in our understanding of stevia from a production, genetic and utilization standpoint,” Warner said. “This grant will help us address some major questions that are necessary to understand to successfully produce this crop in its current state and will also set us up to be successful with new varieties in the future.”