A New Zealand firm's natural fruit extract is providing the sugar-like kick for a new calorie-free sweetener that has hit the market in the United States.

McNeil Nutritionals, a subsidiary of New York-listed Johnson & Johnson, last month announced the launch of Nectresse, a sweetener based on monk fruit extract, of which Hamilton-based BioVittoria provides more than 90 per cent of the global supply.

Chief executive David Thorrold said BioVittoria's extract was already being used in a number of products, including some Kellogg's cereals in United States and Nestle Milo in Asia, but Nectresse was its "most significant launch to date". "It's a very big step for us," Thorrold said. "Johnson & Johnson are the category leader in table-top sweetener in the US so for them to be using our product in their next generation natural sweetener is a big milestone."

Thorrold would not say how much the Nectresse business could be worth to BioVittoria, which manufactures the extract at a $7 million facility in the southern Chinese city of Guilin using monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, grown in the surrounding area.


The new product would generate a lot of consumer awareness about monk fruit extract and take the calorie-free sweetener "into the mainstream", he said. "It is table-top - the sachets that you put into your tea and coffee - that has traditionally been the way that US consumers get to learn about new sweeteners."

Thorrold said British sugar giant Tate & Lyle, which bought a 12 per cent stake in BioVittoria last year, had played an important role.

"Through our partnership with Tate & Lyle we have been able to offer McNeil great ingredient innovation, backed by our unique, world-class monk fruit supply chain."

Thorrold said Nectresse would need to gain regulatory approval before it could be sold in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, he said BioVittoria - which was forced to abort an attempted listing on the NZX in 2009 due to a lack of market support - might have another attempt at going public. But he said volatile market conditions meant now was probably not the best time.

"We need to deliver liquidity to our shareholders at some point but the timing of that needs to be right."

BioVittoria's other investors include ACC, Stephen Tindall's K1W1 fund and the Government-backed New Zealand Venture Investment Fund.

* A small green melon which has been cultivated for many hundreds of years.
* The pulp of the fruit is concentrated into a natural additive that is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar and can be used in a range of consumer goods.
* As well as being used for manufacturing sweeteners, the fruit also has applications in traditional Chinese medicine.
* Hamilton-based BioVittoria manufactures its extract in the southern Chinese city of Guilin and has a 3000-member monk fruit grower network.