FDA stevia ruling may have sweet result

'Green gold' is making big strides in the market

A recent US Food and Drug Administration crackdown on a tea product employing the natural, zero-calorie sweetener stevia has positive implications for the fledgling industry, according to Steve May, former chief operating officer of leading stevia supplier, Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands.

The FDA told Hain Celestial that it must alter its Celestial Seasonings tea products containing stevia or else "enforcement action may include seizure of violative products." Stevia is permitted in products marketed as dietary supplements in the US, but does not have GRAS approval as a food ingredient despite a 1995 GRAS submission of more than 900 studies, a long-time gripe of the stevia industry, and a situation May believes will change within three years.

The Celestial products, called Zingers To Go, were actually labelled as dietary supplements but not clearly enough, so the Colorado-based company claims to have resolved the matter by increasing the size of the 'dietary supplement' lettering to meet the FDA's demand.

"All Celestial had to do was increase the font size of the words 'dietary supplement,' so that shows the absurdity in the current regulation," May told Functional Ingredients. "There are so many foodlike products on the market with stevia that carry a dietary-supplement logo to meet the regulation, it can only be a matter of time before the FDA comes to its senses."

May has left Wisdom to establish Sweet People, a new company and stevia brand he said had resolved taste, clumping and supply issues that have traditionally restricted the potential of stevia in the $60 million US market.

Sweet People has purchased a refining plant in Paraguay, where stevia is native, and instigated a Fair Trade scheme. Paraguayans consider stevia to be 'green gold,' and believe it to be better quality than the more common Chinese-sourced botanical.

The stevia market has been increasingly in the spotlight since the announcement by Coke and Cargill that they will launch a stevia ingredient called rebiana. That ingredient has, however, yet to be launched.

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