Cargill Inc. and the Dutch ingredients giant Royal DSM this week began churning out a new sugar substitute that mimics stevia, but without using any of the plant.

The Minnetonka-based agribusiness has been working on getting the product, called EverSweet, to market for several years. Earlier this year, it formed a joint venture with Royal DSM, which was working on a similar product, in hopes of expediting the process.

The joint venture — called Avansya — started making the stevia-like sweetener at commercial scale at Cargill's Blair, Neb., plant this week.

Stevia is a plant grown in South America that produces a noncaloric sweetener that is 250 times sweeter than sugar. EverSweet was inspired by stevia, in that it is made from two key molecules — Reb M and Reb D — that give stevia its sweetness. But rather than being grown in nature, EverSweet was made in a lab through fermentation.

A decade ago, Cargill partnered with the University of Munich and Swiss biotech company Evolva to map the stevia leaf's molecular biology. The team found that when Reb M and Reb D were combined, it produced the same sweetness but without the Reb A molecule that can give pure stevia products a bitter aftertaste.

But Reb M and Reb D are found in less than 1% of each stevia leaf and Cargill said it could never grow enough to make leaf extraction feasible without degrading the land.

For many, the appeal of a stevia sweetener is that it is natural. Cargill's bestselling sugar alternative, Truvia, is made from stevia and a testament to the popularity of nature-derived products.

The EverSweet process has raised questions among some consumers concerned about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The process adds a GMO yeast to a fermentation tank where it helps convert simple sugars into Reb M and Reb D. The labeling of EverSweet as genetically modified is likely to vary by country.

Stacy Malkan, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit pushing for more transparency in the food system, questions the claim that this is a sustainable alternative to regular stevia. "They sure do have a marketing challenge," Malkan said.

Cargill and DSM said food and beverage companies are enthusiastic about the new sweetener.

EverSweet is being tested in more than 300 products. Some are expected to hit store shelves in the U.S. and Mexico next year, said Andy Ohmes, head of Cargill's global high-intensity sweeteners.

"Some customers have already tested their end-products with consumers in consumer trials and reported back to us good feedback as well," Ohmes said in an e-mail.

Cargill and DSM said they each bring something to the partnership. DSM offers biotechnology expertise with strain development and fermentation while Cargill brings with it food and beverage application experience as well as a more global presence in sweeteners. Still, the tie-up slowed the rollout as the companies worked through combining different technologies.

The $50 million fermentation facility is a 10,000-square-foot addition to Cargill's Blair plant.

If operating at full capacity, Ohmes said, "this fermentation facility will be producing enough EverSweet to sweeten many millions of bottles/cans of soft drinks or servings of yogurt each month."

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767