SAYS ZANNA MCFERSON, plucking a stevia leaf from a plant on her desk and biting into it, "I knew there had to be something we could do with it." Through the expansive windows of her corner office at Cargill's headquarters, an Aspen-like mega-lodge on the outskirts of suburban Minneapolis, she stares out at the snowy pines and at the horizon beyond. McFerson chews, swallows, and smiles. "It's definitely nice to see the light," she says.
That's because McFerson is one of several Cargill employees who spent three years secluded in the company basement, in rooms with blacked-out windows, using code names — including "Lancelot" and "Cobalt" — to mask their project: determining how to push the little-known plant into a bold new market. As Cargill's first-ever director of so-called high-intensity, or diet, sweeteners, McFerson was charged with creating a product that could go head-to-head with giants Sweet'N Low, Splenda, and Equal. With most Americans overweight and many focused on the origins of their food, Cargill believed there was a wide-open opportunity for a plant-based sugar substitute.
Cargill, the privately held $108-billion-a-year behemoth, has stakes in almost every corner of the food industry. It helps grow and distribute grains and other crops; it supplies food and beverage companies with ingredients; it helps agricultural firms with commodity risk management. In 2004, when McFerson set out on her mission, Cargill was not a player in the no-calorie-sweetener business — it had never even competed. (In fact, the company generally doesn't sell its own products straight to shoppers; that would mean competing with the food manufacturers it supplies.) Four years later, McFerson unveiled what has become a golden egg for the company: Truvia, the world's first widely available no-calorie sugar substitute that originates from a plant. With its cute green packets, Truvia has already stolen 12% of the U.S. market for tabletop sweeteners from its pink, yellow, and blue competitors, making it just the fourth diet sweetener to gain widespread acceptance in the last half-century. But its potential market is even bigger.
In stevia, McFerson found a sugar substitute that was both hypersweet — it is more than 200 times sweeter than sugar — and natural. That made it perfect for a two-pronged advance on American taste buds. Cargill's bid to win over the consumer was a foray designed to seduce an even more coveted customer: processed-food conglomerates. By insinuating itself first into the $3.3-billion-a-year global market for tabletop sweeteners, it could snare a piece of the market for sweeteners in prepackaged foods — that would be a much bigger market, worth trillions of dollars annually, according to Mike Richardson, a sweetener analyst at the Freedonia Group.
Truvia would enable health-conscious processed-food manufacturers to clean up their product labels by cutting sugar, replacing artificial sweeteners, or distracting from customer turnoffs, such as high-fructose corn syrup. Going after the consumer in order to woo the corporations, which in turn would fuel consumer demand — that's a savvy business plan, and it was cooked up by McFerson.
It's already working: Truvia has edged into products throughout the supermarket. And they are moving off the shelves. Coca-Cola sold $93.2 million of Truvia-sweetened Vitaminwater Zero in 2010. And Kraft's low-calorie Crystal Light Pure powdered drink mix — sweetened by Truvia — pulled in $13.7 million its first year. When you look at a can of Diet Coke, you'll see aspartame listed as an ingredient. You can't buy aspartame — if you're at the supermarket, you might instead purchase Equal, which has aspartame as its sweetening ingredient. But when you pick up a product sweetened with Cargill's version of stevia, you'll see the name Truvia.
It's all certainly sweet for Cargill. But what does this unrestrained pursuit of sweetness mean for our waistlines?
TALL AND TRIM WITH SHORT-CROPPED HAIR, McFerson looks like any corporate mom — which she is, to her 13-year-old twins, Matilda and Tory. She likes to say that it's her parenting résumé that gives her an edge on this campaign, but that belies her long history in the business. McFerson immigrated to the U.S. from Finland at 16, earned an MBA from the University of Iowa, and joined Cargill in 1990. She held a variety of roles at the company, including selling high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners to food and beverage companies. The syrup was vilified for causing excessive weight gain, and she realized that Cargill needed something that would address health and environmental concerns.
The idea of going natural didn't come all that naturally to Cargill, especially in the diet category. Diet sweeteners are zero-calorie because their active ingredients tend to be so small that they have barely any nutritive value. Finding that perfect alchemy in a plant is hard. Refined sugar from beets or sugarcane isn't as ultra sweet, and it is more calorie laden. In 2003, McFerson oversaw the development of sucromalt, a low-glycemic, slowly digestible sweetener for diabetic foods. She had also joined a small internal think tank looking to expand Cargill's sweetness portfolio. Nearly 50% of Americans consume nonsugar sweeteners, with thousands of new diet products rushed to market each year. But McFerson thought another lab-based salvo wouldn't gain much for Cargill. Why would a manufacturer swap one funky-sounding chemical for another?
"We said, 'We should go natural. Start with the crop and bring the product to market in a way that increases the consumers' want to know what they are eating,' " McFerson says. The crop she settled on was stevia.
Originally called "ka'a he'e," stevia was discovered in Paraguay more than 100 years ago by an Italian-Swiss botanist who found that indigenous tribes used it to mask bitter flavors. By 1931, a team of French chemists had isolated what gave the plant its zing — tiny extracts called steviol glycosides. Glycosides are found in many plants, protecting them from predators in some cases. Stevia has 12 known glycosides, and though scientists have not been able to identify their function, we know that some are key to the plant's sweetness. Steviol extracts have been marketed in tabletop and consumer products in Japan — and in the U.S. as supplements at some health-food stores — for decades, thanks to a fairly simple extraction method: Dry the stevia leaves, steep them in water, carefully filter the resulting mixture to get infinitesimally small flavor crystals.
That was fine for food additives, McFerson thought. But she knew that for customers to connect Truvia with naturalness, a tabletop version would need to have the verisimilitude of sugar. And winning customers over with the consumer product was essential in courting packaged-goods companies. It would be like unpacking a magic trick. While helping roll out new food formulations, Cargill would also show consumers the new ingredient on the labels of packaged goods; even let them take it home and taste it. Developing this straight-to-consumer strategy was, McFerson says, her "aha" moment.
Not everyone at Cargill agreed. "I would not be honest if I said we didn't face opposition," says Marcelo Montero, president of Cargill's heath and nutrition division. Executives questioned selling directly to consumers — particularly a product they were creating out of thin air. Montero credits McFerson's "Scandinavian stubbornness" for making it happen. She was given about $100 million to make stevia safe and bring it to both markets.
Armed with that hefty budget, one of McFerson's first moves — before she even started safety tests — was to hedge her business-to-business model. In late 2004, she and executives within Coca-Cola's own high-intensity-sweetener division came up with a unique proposition for codevelopment. In order to work as an additive, Truvia would have to prove to be stable at all of the temperature, moisture, and pH-balance levels needed to make most products. McFerson wanted both companies' science teams to share the discoveries to speed up that learning curve. Coca-Cola would troubleshoot the drink mixology, leaving Cargill to focus on food combos. Andrea Young, who is in charge of marketing for sweeteners at Coke, agreed. Though she won't disclose how much Coke spent on R&D, she says the company was already experimenting with stevia, too. Teaming up with Cargill sure beat doing it all themselves.
McFerson and her team faced many challenges in working with stevia; it has a checkered history. Since the 1980s, some studies have shown that certain crude extracts might cause reproductive problems in rodents. In 1985, a study by the National Academy of Sciences also suggested that it could potentially cause liver damage. As a result, the FDA banned stevia-plant imports in the early 1990s. Though the ban was lifted in 1995, the plant was approved only as a dietary supplement. The EU, Canada, and Australia have all taken similar safety measures. But stevia's dozen glycosides each have slightly different characteristics (some have bitter and metallic aftertastes), and, possibly, safety levels. The race was on to find the right one that contributed to sweetness without risk.
The team concentrated on a glycoside dubbed rebiana — short for rebaudioside-A. It seemed abundant and less harsh-tasting. Starting in 2005, Cargill used the same extraction method that everyone else had tried, but with a proprietary additional step to make sure the rebiana crystals could be collected independently in mass quantities.
Truvia still had an image issue, though. The raw additive looked a lot more like chalk than sugar; it was white, flat, dull. The microscopic particles were ultra strong, creating a scale problem: One teaspoon of refined rebiana was as sweet as roughly two cups of refined sugar, according to Cargill principal food scientist Melanie Goulson. Asking someone to flavor his coffee with a supersmall pinch might give him the willies. "We had to do something so that people could actually work with it," Goulson says. She eventually blended in a heavy helping of erythritol, a sugar found in fermented fruit that is 60% as sweet as sugar, to give it a more lustrous "crystal-y" texture. The tabletop packets could have the same heft and intensity as everything else on the market.
Cargill and Coke had contracted with independent research labs around the country to do 16 core safety tests to determine rebiana's effect on metabolism (none), blood-sugar levels (none), blood pressure (none), and stability in foods and drink (yes, it's stable). In December 2008, Cargill met the FDA's GRAS (generally recognized as safe) standard for the use of rebiana in Truvia. Other international food-safety agencies, including the World Health Organization, have come to tantamount conclusions. At home, the only opposition has come from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, which notes the product was tested only on lab rats and not also mice. Doug Karas with the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says in an email that Cargill and Coke's tests seem rigorous enough, and McFerson remains unconcerned. In fact, she explains, she was so confident of Truvia's safety that long before FDA approval, she was serving Truvia-and-cinnamon toast and Truvia-sprinkled grapefruit to her daughters.
TRUVIA HAS ITS OWN tribute message, an ode to the comfort Cargill wants to provide. "Have you ever cured bad news with hot choc-olate? Ever snuck downstairs to eat a cookie before breast-feeding the baby at 3 a.m.?" If the answer is yes, you are part of Cargill's new demographic, the Yoga Momma, the company's name for the typically harried but well-intentioned working woman.
On a recent day, McFerson and Truvia's marketing director, Ann Tucker, explain the tao of Yoga Momma-ism. "The Yoga Momma wears yoga pants but may never make it to class," Tucker says. "It's more about a mind-set," McFerson adds. Both readily admit this sounds like them. "I've never been to class, but I have the pants," McFerson deadpans.
The brand homage was conceived by mothers at Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago. "What is cool about Cargill is it's a pretty female-based group," says Donna Charlton-Perrin, one of the campaign's architects. "There is a line in there about how women have a complicated relationship with sweetness. Everyone just had this autobiographical understanding of how that goes." Not surprisingly, Yoga Mommas tend to be prime spenders on health-related supermarket goodies. To reach them, McFerson spent lavishly to secure a name (which sounds like true plus stevia, and was devised by Lexicon Branding); a logo (light green type with a tiny stevia leaf, by Pentagram); and clever print and TV ads designed by Ogilvy.
One of the first products to enter the market with Truvia as an ingredient was YoCrunch 100. Debuting in January 2010, it was meant to be a lower-calorie yogurt line extension for the already popular YoCrunch brand, a traditional cup plus a domed lid for mix-in toppings, like granola. At 6 ounces and around 200 calories per serving, the snack wasn't seen as entirely healthy. "Some adults didn't want all those calories," brand manager Shannon Daily says. In mid-2009, the company reduced the sugar — but not by using Truvia as a substitute. Instead, it introduced a 4-ounce, 100-calorie snack pack flavored with erythritol (ironically, Truvia's tabletop bulking agent). It seemed to struggle. "People were hesitant. They would say, 'We really like the product but don't know about this erythritol,' " she says.
Daily tested YoCrunch 100 with Truvia in focus groups and saw that moms already familiar with Truvia got excited about the new product. When YoCrunch switched over to Truvia, it did exactly as Cargill had hoped: The brand rolled out in-store placards, distributed newspaper and store-receipt coupons, and placed ads in Shape magazine to announce the inclusion of Truvia. Sales have since increased 20%. "The awareness of Truvia drew in consumers," Daily says.
MCFERSON SAYS TRUVIA GOES FROM "field to table" responsibly, a sort of big-business approximation of the farm-to-table ethos for independently owned and locally grown food. In doing so, she seems to have conflated two different ideas — natural and healthy — in a way that makes them indistinguishable. But is natural necessarily healthy?
The word natural on food labels is, in fact, meaningless. Unlike organic, the term isn't certifiable by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It's kind of like, Does it seem like it, does it look like it, does it act like it?" McFerson says. In the case of Truvia, there are actual fields behind the field-to-table pitch: Cargill is growing stevia on more than 1,200 acres of South American farmland. Cargill also imports the plant for processing from Asia, but has begun shipping its own samples to a greenhouse and research facility in Boulder, Colorado, to figure out how to grow the heartiest, best-yielding varietals.
The journey from field to table is not quite so direct, of course. Stevia makes a lengthy stop at a secretive processing center to transform into Truvia. The fact that the shelf product is actually more of a sweetener blend than purely refined stevia doesn't really bother McFerson. "I think our consumer is very smart but also very busy. How much they dig into the details of that is going to vary," she says. She points out that Cargill began its Truvia development with a plant — the natural slogan wasn't slapped on at the last minute. "How we run our business just becomes incorporated into what our promise is," she says. While she won't disclose Truvia's business-to-business profits, the green halo seems to be paying off at the cash register. Cargill sold $31.6 million worth of packets last year, up 55% from the previous year, according to industry analyst SymphonyIRI Group.
That's excellent news for Cargill. But what about all those Yoga Mommas? Alexander Chernev, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, thinks the real problem with Truvia will happen once shoppers bring products back home and mismanage portion control. Chernev coined the theory of the dieter's paradox: In short, people tend to overestimate the health impact of natural products and therefore eat more of them than is recommended. "The more we try to simplify our decisions, the more mistakes we make," Chernev says.
Substitute sweeteners are changing our fundamental relationship with food, some experts say. Whereas sweetness was once a primitive signal that a fruit was safe to eat, it has since become a temptation that many of us feel incapable of resisting — even after we're full. Michael Cowley, director of the Monash University Obesity and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, thinks he knows why. Sweetness triggers increased activity along the same neurological "reward" pathways that blaze up when a drug addict gets a heroin fix. Truvia and its artificial competitors won't boost levels of glucose, the biochemical that triggers that happy signal. So no, Cowley doesn't think people can be truly addicted to sugar. But he speculates that over time many people seeking a sugar high might be left jonesing. The more substitutes we seek to compensate, the more desensitized we all might become, which might push the demand for sweet things even higher. "Is that a bad thing? I don't know," Cowley admits. Certainly not for the companies trying to sell more alt-sugar packets.
Some studies have shown a strong correlation between weight gain and diet products. In 2006, Sharon Fowler, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, studied data from the San Antonio Heart Study, a measure of the lifestyle choices and fitness levels of thousands of Texans over an eight-year period in the 1980s. She found that the more diet soft drinks the subjects drank, the more weight they gained. Whether that is a result of the dieter's paradox or something more unsettling, like some prolonged depression of our metabolism, she can't say. "We are in the middle of a massive experiment, and no one signed a consent form," Fowler says.
McFerson doesn't think she needs one. "What should the concern be? I'm not concerned over the use of this for people, and its safety has been proven," she says. As for people who might use Truvia to gorge, she points out that the company clearly advertises it as an indulgence. That doesn't mean she hasn't already been shocked by some consumer actions. At "O You!", a lifestyle seminar sponsored by O Magazine in Kansas City, Missouri, in October 2009, Cargill supplied 4,000 Truvia-dipped strawberries, enough for one per person. To her surprise, and then panic, McFerson quickly noticed that fans were flagging down servers for seconds, then thirds. She had to send caterers to fetch an additional 8,750 berries from a fleet of local grocery stores to satisfy the hungry crowds. Sweetness, McFerson says, is "not about more. We don't need more." But she's not going to try to control consumer behavior either. "I think that's a concern that one business can't solve ultimately."
THESE DAYS, CARGILL'S once-clandestine food-applications lab has been repurposed. On a recent morning, Goulson and Amy Boileau, the company's associate regulatory director, lead a tour through the demonstration kitchens. Each hums with lab techs churning out the next generation of Truvia-enhanced products, including low-fat fro-yo and protein bars. The duo samples a batch of Truvia-sweetened chocolate milk, and Boileau notes that it has notably less sugar and fewer calories than the original. However, when the mixture hits her lips, she seems disappointed. "It's too sweet for me," she says. "Why not make it a pleasant sweetness that still tastes like chocolate milk, just not as sweet?" But as Goulson put it earlier: "Our main rule is to give our customers what they want."
And still, much of what is in this lab is not a response to what any customer has requested — yet. Cargill is prototyping items with Truvia, then approaching companies with a sales pitch and a sample in hand. "It's a nudge," McFerson says. Cargill has also posted recipes for the home cook on Truvia's website.
On another evening, McFerson and her husband, Tom, host a dinner party for the Truvia team, including Boileau and Tucker. The house is a testament to McFerson's force of vision. She and Tom, a Cargill account manager, have remodeled it into a Scandinavian-style abode, complete with a sauna. The background bustle, with kids heading out the door to basketball practice, fits right in with McFerson's Yoga Momma mien. Dinner is served. It's salad followed by salmon with a mushroom pasta. For dessert, McFerson doles out modest slices of a Truvia cheesecake with Truvia-macerated berries, a popular online recipe. Amid cheers — "Look at that! This is awesome!" — the Cargill employees polish off their pieces. McFerson eats slowly, trying to explain again how Truvia should be used.
"It's more about balance," McFerson says finally. "You should have anything you want when you have balance." She sets her fork down, done with the meal. She seems not to notice that she leaves a few bites behind.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.