Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have been awarded a $3.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help make stevia, a low-calorie sweetener, a more viable crop nationwide. Specifically, the team will work to improve stevia’s flavor and find ways to help farmers effectively produce the perennial.
As consumer demand for a domestically produced low or zero calorie sweetener increases, 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 farming best practices, and identifying conducive growing regions.
“As a crop, stevia is on the verge of being adopted more in the U.S.,” says Warner. “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 sweet-tasting compounds.
“Stevia produces at least 25 sweet-tasting compounds, which we collectively refer to as steviol glycosides,” adds Warner. “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 this 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.
According the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the food and agriculture industry contribute $101 billion annually to the state’s economy, and total employment is 923,000, which accounts for 22 percent of the state’s workforce.