Which Reb M production method is best for the environment? Ingredion LCA probes the sustainability indicators of stevia

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Full results will be released in the fall, but a first look at a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA) of Ingredion’s stevia sweetener operations suggests that different production methods for Reb M have impacts quite different environments, but also highlights the challenges of how best to communicate LCA. given responsibly.

Currently, there are three main production methods for Reb M, which has become the most sought after stevia sweetener because it has the sweetest taste, but is generally present at very low levels in the plant.

  • Sheet​: Reb M stevia leaf extract;
  • Bioconversion​: Reb M made with Stevia leaf extract as raw material which then undergoes an enzymatic conversion process to arrive at Reb M;
  • Fermentation​: Reb M made by fermenting sugars with genetically modified yeast.

According to Ingredion, which offers its customers Reb M made from all three production methods, Reb M from fermentation and bioconversion outperformed Reb M from leaf on all four key sustainability indicators (carbon emissions GHG, land use, water scarcity and cumulative energy demand), with the fermentation-based approach (which does not involve stevia plants at all) generating the lowest environmental impact to some extent ( see table below).

Customers who want to see the impact of switching from one sweetener to another on any of the four key parameters used in LCA (GHG emissions, land use, etc.) can use a ‘sustainability calculator​’​ on the Ingredion website.

Source: Ingredion

Communicating LCA data: “There are four different attributes here, which is the most important, and should we aggregate them?”

So what is the best way to communicate this data set, and LCA data more generally?

While customers — and consumers — want to know if Product X is a more sustainable choice than Product Y as a whole, there isn’t always a clear answer, said Kurt Callaghan, global strategic director for reduction. sugar at Ingredion, at FoodNavigator-USA.

Maybe Product X has an extremely small land or water footprint, but very high GHG emissions, while Product Y uses a ton of land and water, but has extremely low emissions? Which has the biggest environmental footprint?

“I still think we determine that as an industry,” Callaghan said. “There are four different attributes here, so which one is the most important, and should we lump them together? The short answer is no.

“Greenhouse gases are by far the most focused on by our clients, perhaps because it is the easiest to measure and understand, but as we delve deeper into ESG ​[Environmental, Social, Governance] initiatives around the world, water scarcity in certain geographic areas is going to be the biggest factor, so it really depends. It’s going to be situational.

“As an industry, we are still at a very early stage in collectively understanding how best to use this type of information”

Since so many food and beverage companies are now making sustainability claims based on LCA data, they can select the ‘good stuff’ or order ‘paid to play’ LCAs that are not worth the paper they are written on. , how are industry stakeholders and consumers supposed to manage all of this and make informed decisions?

“We are continually being asked for more information on sustainability”, Callaghan said. “But I would say that as an industry, we are still very early in our collective understanding of how best to use this type of information.”

“We can’t improve what we don’t measure”

In general, said Callaghan“We see a lot of greenwashing there, but in the investment community we’ve seen a lot of resistance against it recently.

“I think everyone is still a bit early in the LCA process, but from our perspective, we can’t improve what we don’t measure and that’s a starting point that can help us to identify where we can invest to have the greatest impact.

“So two examples where we do that are breeding stevia varieties with higher levels of Reb M​ [so you get higher yields from the same land/water/inputs], and also by using more plant material, either as an energy source or as fertilizer, etc.

Sustainable development and b2b purchase engines: “It’s really on a case-by-case basis, depending on the customer or even the brand”

As for how ACV data on Reb M can influence purchasing decisions, some customers, Callaghan said, will continue to purchase Reb M extracted from stevia leaves (which is the most expensive and has a higher environmental footprint). higher than bioconversion or fermentation) because they want to be able to say ‘stevia leaf extract​ on their labels (which you cannot do if you use fermented Reb M, for example).

For other brands, price is the determining factor, and the fermentation-based Reb M is the cheapest option that also has the lowest environmental footprint, he said. Others may focus on whether their sweeteners come with non-GMO project verification (which applies to Reb M from leaf extract and bioconversion, but not fermentation).

However, for some customers, ACL information is increasingly informing decision-making, he said: “It really ison a case-by-case basis, depending on the customer or even the brand. For some brands, durability is going to be what’s most important.

Assumptions upon assumptions

While there’s plenty of good published and peer-reviewed ACV data in various databases on all kinds of ingredients, Callaghan said, the devil is always in the details.

So, for example, sugarcane from one part of the world may have a significantly smaller footprint than sugarcane from another, and once you start exploring datasets that attempt to provide a standard footprint for a given ingredient, you’re basically looking at a series of assumptions.

“The raw material of our fermentation-based Reb M ​[made in partnership with synthetic biology partner Amyris]is Bonsucro certified cane sugar grown in Braziland our ​[Reb M] the factory with Amyris is literally next to the cane sugar factory, so we only pump this raw material, there is no transport ​[of bulk sugars].”

Trust the underlying data

He added: “In terms of comparison with the big cane sugar countries, Brazil is one of the best options in terms of water availability, in terms of land used. But if you are sourcing sugar from an area with water shortage issues or there are a lot of shipments to the final destination, these [LCA] the numbers can move a lot.

“So I think ultimately it’s going to be about the ingredient makers, the food and beverage makers, doing their own LCAs with primary data and being as transparent as possible so that we can truly trust the underlying data.​.”

The LCA is currently undergoing peer review to comply with ISO standards, with full results soon to be available to the public, Callaghan said.

The peer review process is coming to an end and we should have completed ISO compliance by the end of August. After that, our full ACV report will be published on our website. We will have to redact some proprietary information for competitive purposes, but this will be a very comprehensive report of all of our assumptions and the methodologies behind them.

LCA sweetening ingredients

Ingredion has not yet published data comparing Reb M with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, although it has published the table above comparing Reb A with these bulk sweeteners indicating that it outperforms on all parameters except water scarcity.

But how useful is it to compare high-intensity sweeteners such as stevia with bulk sweeteners such as sugar, given that stevia is not a direct replacement for sugar in many applications and often must be combined with fillers, who have their own environmental footprint?

It’s a good question, Callaghan said. “So everything we’ve done is on a sweet equivalent basis, and Reb M is 300 times sweeter than sugar. For beverages, you can make a one-to-one comparison between sugar and high-intensity sweetener, and beverages are the biggest market for these sweeteners.

“But you’re right about non-beverage applications where there’s what we call a functional rebuild, and ​[the environmental impact of any added] bulking ingredients should also be incorporated to get a true apples to apples comparison with sugar.

Image credit: Ingredion

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