Stevia sweetener producer PureCircle will harvest its first commercial-scale crop of a variety it’s growing in North Carolina, part of an effort to adapt the plant to more regions of the world and boost production to meet growing demand.

The crop, undamaged by Hurricane Florence, was the first of the company’s Starleaf variety grown in the US to provide the sugar substitute for food and drinks with little or no calories.

Since the yield met PureCircle’s standards, the Chicago-based company expects to expand its stevia-growing acreage significantly in the US in the coming years, bringing many more farmers into the program to join three farming partnerships this year.

“Our partnerships in North Carolina will significantly increase our supply of Starleaf stevia plants grown in North America and thereby geographically diversify our stevia plant supply,” PureCircle CEO Maga Malsagov says. “We could not be more pleased with this year’s results.”

PureCircle also has made advances to supply more Reb M, one of stevia’s sweeteners that the company notes has the most sugar-like taste and is sought after by the food and beverage industry. It produces Reb M from the Starleaf variety and also by adding an enzyme to stevia leaf extract with low Reb M content, which completes the maturation to Reb M.

The partnership helps North Carolina farmers use acreage where tobacco once grew, and planned mechanization will help maintain a sustainable, economic crop, the company says.

PureCircle has various stevia-related patents from its research and innovation and works along the supply chain to collaborate with farms and food and beverage companies trying to improve their low- and no-calorie formulations. Sweet parts of the stevia leaf are 400 times sweeter than sugar.

As part of its growth, the company expanded its Malaysian stevia extract facility in 2017.