Farm-to-product: Value chain of stevia

Stevia passes through many hands along the way from arable land to your product. In this article, we make an effort to find out whose hands are doing what. Join us on an exciting journey.

26 May 2020 •

Billy Bonka is a choco­late mak­er who is almost as colour­ful as his more famous friend Willy. It has come to his atten­tion that more and more con­sumers are demand­ing milk choco­late with­out added sug­ar. However, they want it to taste just as sweet and deli­cious as the choco­late factory’s leg­endary choco­late bar. After a lit­tle research, Mr Bonka has opened his eyes and found ste­via and is now curi­ous about how this sweet plant from a field in a coun­try far away finds its way into his chocolate.

Nursery garden

Stevia grows nat­u­ral­ly in Paraguay’s rain­forests. There, the sweet leaves have been used by the Guarani Indians as sweet­en­ers for more than 1500 years. But this is not where Mr Bonkas ste­via begins its journey.

Mr Bonkas ste­via begins its life on the oth­er side of the globe – in China, where ste­via is grown more than any­where else on earth. But rarely from seeds.

It is hard to make ste­via seeds grow. Only one in ten becomes a plant. Therefore, the jour­ney begins at a nurs­ery, where they take cut­tings and let them grow in greenhouses.


After ten to twelve weeks the cut­tings are plant­ed out. On the plant site, there should be a lot of sun and heat, and the air should be humid. But the ste­via plant does not want too much water. The spe­cif­ic require­ments mean that the plant is grown main­ly in sub­trop­i­cal climates.

After three to five months in humid air and well-drained soil, and with plen­ty of sun and heat, ste­via is ready to be har­vest­ed. If har­vest­ing is done care­ful­ly, the same plant can be har­vest­ed sev­er­al times over 2–3 years. But most com­mon­ly, the entire plant is har­vest­ed at once.

Acquisition, purification and drying

The har­vest­ed ste­via plants are pur­chased and shipped to a ‘mill’ where the leaves are sep­a­rat­ed from the branch, cleaned and sort­ed accord­ing to qual­i­ty. The leaves are then dried and packed.

The dried leaves are up to 30 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. Therefore, they are used as they are in tea, herbal tea or fruit infusion.

But Mr Bonka wants to use ste­via in his choco­late. But he can’t. However, he is allowed to use the sweet sub­stances that give the plant its sweet­ness – the so-called ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. Therefore, we fol­low the ste­via leaves that con­tin­ue their jour­ney to a refinery.


Refinery is a word that brings to mind a jum­ble of pipes, large tanks and a high mast at the top where a torch seems to burn with eter­nal flame. A ste­via refin­ery is, how­ev­er, a bit dif­fer­ent. Stevia refiner­ies are more like sug­ar refineries.

In the first phase, a basic extract is extract­ed con­sist­ing of var­i­ous types of ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. This is done in two steps. First, the leaves are placed in warm water to leach ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. The sweet sub­stances are then fil­tered and extract­ed as crystals.

To ensure an even lev­el of, for exam­ple, Reb A, the ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides in the basic extract need to be divid­ed into frac­tions. This is done in a sec­ond step that starts with adding alco­hol to the extract. The solu­tion is dis­tilled so the ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are crys­tal­lized in a con­trolled man­ner and frac­tions with var­i­ous ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides can be recov­ered. This is repeat­ed for each frac­tion to excrete ‘incor­rect’ ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides and there­by make the frac­tion ‘clean­er’. In this way, ste­via extract with 98 to 99 per­cent ‘puri­ty’ can be obtained.

Mixing and packing

The high­er puri­ty, the bet­ter, is easy to believe. But that’s not always the case. The coun­ter­in­tu­itive truth about ste­via extract is that it is often prefer­able with a ste­via extract with 50 to 80 per­cent Reb A, for exam­ple, and the rest con­tain­ing oth­er ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides (main­ly ste­vio­side and Reb C).

Therefore, puri­fied Reb A is mixed with more or less puri­fied frac­tions of oth­er ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. Now we have a ste­via extract which is ready to be pack­aged and sold further.

Exporter or agent

After refin­ing and blend­ing, the ste­via extract ends up with an exporter or agent in the pro­duc­ing coun­try, in this case, China.

The Chinese exporter or agent sells the ste­via extract through var­i­ous agents or importers around the world.

Agent or importer on the European market

We are now get­ting to the end of the ste­via val­ue chain, but it will still take a while before the ste­via extract ends up with Billy Bonka at the choco­late factory.

The ste­via extract has now end­ed up with an importer in Europe. It does not end up in a phys­i­cal sense, since an agent mere­ly medi­ates the deal. The ste­via extract is then sold to var­i­ous dis­trib­u­tors around Europe.

Billy Bonka has a few options

Billy Bonka faces dif­fer­ent choices.

He can actu­al­ly choose to skip a few steps in the val­ue chain and buy direct­ly from a refin­ery in China. But that’s not to rec­om­mend. For a vari­ety of rea­sons, it can be tricky and Billy may not be get­ting what he wants.

Agent or importer?

It is eas­i­er to turn to an importer or agent in Europe.

The agent acts as a tra­di­tion­al bro­ker and has no stock of his own but medi­ates the deal between the exporter and Billy Bonka.

An importer buys from an exporter and has his own inven­to­ry. The importer is also like­ly to work close­ly with sup­pli­ers who are well-known and estab­lished. It can mean greater pre­dictabil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty for Billy Bonka.

However, Billy Bonka is cau­tious and wants to take one step at a time. In addi­tion, the choco­late fac­to­ry is not very huge with its 50 employ­ees. And ste­via is very potent;it does not take many grams to get a pleas­ant sweet­ness in Bonkas milk choco­late . There is a risk that the agent or importer does not think it is worth the trou­ble to sell as small quan­ti­ties as Mr Bonka wants.


Then we have the distributor.

A dis­trib­u­tor han­dles many dif­fer­ent types of ingre­di­ents for dif­fer­ent types of food. This means that it can be dif­fi­cult to find a dis­trib­u­tor who is an expert on Billy Bonka’s choco­late or under­stands his challenges.

A Helping Hand

Do you find your­self in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion as Billy Bonka? We are ready to help you with your sug­ar reduc­tion. You can buy ste­via extract direct­ly from us or get tips on good dis­trib­u­tors that we work with. Do not hes­i­tate to con­tact us.

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