“I think people are aware that sugar can be harmful, but we are humans and it has become so natural for us to consume sugar. It’s hard to break a habit. That’s why I don’t think we can just remove sugar from our diets. We have to find an alternative that allows us to keep the same, sweet taste that we are used to. That’s why I’m so interested in stevia, a natural sweetener without calories”, says Erdogan Ramazanoglu, a stevia farmer from Turkey.
Erdogan Ramazanoglu is 24 years old and lives in Adana, Turkey. He comes from a long generation of farmers that have grown fruits and different varieties of grain for years. Today, the family business is one of the largest and most profitable agriculture companies in the region. Erdogan is also studying Business Administration at the university in Turkey, and is planning to study Brand Management shortly, followed by a Masters in Finance.
Erdogan was first introduced to stevia in 2013, when studying the English language in England. That’s also when he decided to try and introduce stevia on the Turkish market.
“During my studies in England I was staying with an English family. One day, I treated them Turkish coffee and started preparing the drink. When I was about to add sugar, as we traditionally do in Turkish coffee, my landlady and landlord, Anna and Marco, offered me to add stevia instead. It was the first time I heard about the ingredient and we started chatting about it. I knew that Turkey is the biggest consumer of sugar in Europe, and that it has caused a lot of health related issues. My cousin, who is the same age as me, has diabetes. I decided to make it my goal to introduce stevia, as an alternative to sugar, to my people and my country.”
Upon returning to Turkey, Erdogan started investigating ways to cultivate stevia on the farm. He tells us how health issues due to high sugar consumption in Turkey have long worried him, and how he sees the stevia business as a way of giving back to society.
“I’ve personally always paid a lot of attention to my health, and tried to avoid consuming too much sugar. Today I see a lot of people in Turkey suffering from diabetes, and it saddens me. When I was introduced to stevia, I saw how it could be used to help people live healthier. That’s when it became not only a business but also a passion for me.”
“I started investigating stevia and reached out to people across the globe that I could find who specialized in stevia; both institutes, researchers and other business owners. Together with my father, I set up an R&D center at the farm, to start experimenting and growing different stevia plants to find what worked best in the Turkish climate.”
Erdogan explains that there have been some obstacles with starting up a stevia farm in Turkey. In China, where many of the world’s stevia farms are placed today, labor costs are lower which makes it easier for them to be profitable. At the same time, stevia is a relatively new ingredient on the Turkish market, meaning that the market conditions are still unorganized and inadequate. Erdogan and his father have been experimenting with different types of seeds of stevia to find the ideal ones for the Turkish climate conditions, which has taken a lot of time.
“This is our fifth year as a stevia grower, but we haven’t started growing it commercially yet. Right now, we are experimenting and trying different methods. We have trial fields for stevia cultivation, and we are focusing on R&D right now. We also have some employees at the laboratory, researching how we can improve the yield rate of our stevia. We are working together with researchers and some companies on this, including Polisan, one of the biggest and most well-known chemical companies in Turkey.”
In 2015, the Stevia doyen Belgian Professor Jan Geun, Chairman of the EUSTAS, a scientific, non-profit association whose aim is the promotion and coordination of all activities focusing on research and health in relation to Stevia rebaudiana, visited the farm and approved Erdogan’s family’s stevia harvest. But Erdogan says that there’s still a long way to go in improving the product quality and efficiency of the harvest before they can start to commercialize in Turkey.
“Nowadays, people have started to take more care about their health in Turkey. The timing is perfect to introduce stevia to the people. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people I’ve meet and spoken with. Especially those suffering from obesity and diabetes are interested in how stevia can help them. This is my motivation.”
Erdogan sees a lot of positive things happening on a European level that will help with creating a profitable stevia business in Turkey. When both the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) and FDA (U S Food and Drug Administration) accepted the use of stevia in food and drink produced within Europe, it meant a big improvement for the stevia field. Also the TGK (Turkish Food Codex) have come to accept stevia as an ingredient.
“To introduce a new product on a market is always a challenge. To make people more aware of stevia we are inviting people to the farm to let them see for themselves how natural it is; that is grown right here at our farm, just as the lemons, oranges and grains my family has been growing for over hundreds years. Although there is tough competition from China, I believe that with our openness and honesty, we can be the European stevia gateway, because of our geography and climate advantages. My main goal right now is to keep farming stevia in Turkey, and to demonstrate it’s positive effects.”