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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The maker of America's top sugar brand Domino Sugar is launching its first no-calorie "natural" sweetener extracted from the stevia plant in Paraguay, the strongest sign yet that the upstart product is threatening to eat into raw-sugar demand.
In less than a decade, the sweet-tasting stevia powder has stolen a big chunk of the $1.3-billion global market for artificial sweeteners as more health-conscious consumers use it in what they eat and drink.
Consumers' appetite for artificial sweeteners like Cumberland Packing Co.'s Sweet'N Low and corn syrup has waned amid rising interest in foods perceived as natural.
The powerful corporations that dominate the global sugar market are also facing slowing demand, especially in the United States, for refined sugar that is used in everything from coffee to cakes. The U.S. slowdown is due in part to concerns about extremely high rates of obesity and diabetes.
Big Sugar's response? To offer new non-sugar products that are not calorific, are suitable for diabetes sufferers and, more importantly, are seen as a more attractive alternative for health-conscious consumers than artificial sweeteners.
"If you look down the sweeteners aisle at any supermarket, there are stevia products there. Whatever consumers are looking for, we want to provide," Domino President and Chief Executive Officer Brian O'Malley told Reuters.
ASR Group, which sells Domino Sugar and is the world's largest refiner of cane sugar, will launch its new product by the end of the year - its first to be made solely from the plant extract rather than a blend of sugar and stevia.
For ASR Group, which also owns the Tate & Lyle brand, it's a bold move: sugar represents 98 percent of its business.
But stevia's low production costs and relatively high retail sales prices are a sweet spot for food companies.
After spying growing interest four years ago, Louis Dreyfus Corp.'s Imperial Sugar has its own blends of sugar and stevia, and agri business Cargill Inc.'s Truvia brand is the U.S. market leader after entering the fray in 2008.
Archer Daniels Midland Co, a major player in the U.S. corn syrup market and global commodities trade, this month completed a $3-billion acquisition of Wild Flavors, looking to expand in the fast-growing "natural" markets.
To be sure, demand is still tiny compared with global sugar consumption of more than 170 million tonnes. It is also still a rare ingredient in U.S. foods - only 1.5 percent of new food products launched in the first nine months of 2014 contained stevia, Datamonitor Consumer's database shows.
Some health experts caution the sweetener contains additives as well as the plant extract. Questions also remain whether its taste can really match the flavor of sugar.
Still, U.S. consumers will eat and drink about 597 tonnes of stevia in manufactured food and drinks by 2018, with demand soaring from a meager 14.5 tonnes in 2008, according to estimates from market research group Euromonitor International.
Over the same period, the country's demand for artificial sweetener aspartame is expected to drop by a third to 3,243 tonnes, Euromonitor's forecasts show. U.S. sugar consumption has stagnated - the average American consumed about 68 pounds of refined sugar last year, down from a 1972 peak of over 102 pounds, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA).
Natural no-calorie sweeteners "have definitely eroded some volume of traditional sugar sources," Steve French, managing partner of market research firm Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) in Harleysville, Pennsylvania.
"It's not that we're using more sweeteners as a population, we're just shifting usage across different types of sweeteners."
Stevia's roots go back to Paraguay and Brazil, where people have used leaves from the plant to sweeten food for centuries.
It became big business in the United States through a medical products salesman in Arizona called James May who got his first taste of stevia in 1982 when a Peace Corps volunteer returning from a stint in Paraguay gave him some leaves to try.
"After tasting them, I gave him my life savings to go back to Paraguay and send me some stevia leaves," he told Reuters.
He now runs Wisdom Natural Brands in Gilbert, Arizona, whose SweetLeaf sweetener is used in salad dressings, tortilla chips and ice creams.
His big breakthrough came in 2008 when U.S. regulators approved stevia as a sweetener after more than two decades of lobbying. Until then, it had been used in foods, but not as a sweetener.
Some 17 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed in 2013 by the Natural Marketing Institute said they use stevia, up from just 4 percent in 2008. Just under half of consumers used table sugar, down from 57 percent in 2008, the survey showed.
While much of stevia's appeal is that it's natural, some critics note that most products include more corn sugar and bulking agents than the stevia plant itself and that the term "natural" is tricky territory for food companies.
In 2013, Cargill agreed to pay $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit in a Minnesota state court that claimed its Truvia brand should not be marketed as "natural" because it is highly processed and uses genetically modified ingredients.
Truvia spokeswoman Katie Woolery said it is made from natural ingredients and meets all legal guidelines.
Even so, recent entrants are betting on stevia being more than just a U.S. fad. In Japan, where it has been used since the 1970s, it has established a stronghold in products like sports drinks.
"Sugar could be in danger. If there's a product out there that can taste enough like sugar, there's potential for that product to take share," said Jeff Stafford, a Morningstar analyst in Chicago.
Some household food and drinks manufacturers have already spotted the opportunity to sweeten products naturally without adding calories: Greek yogurt maker Chobani has put stevia in its first light yogurt brand, Simply 100, and PepsiCo. is launching a new soda this month that uses stevia.
Reporting by Chris Prentice and Marcy Nicholson, editing by Josephine Mason and Ross Colvin