The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today declared stevia to be generally recognized as safe, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Calls to the FDA were not immediately returned, but Cargill Inc. and Whole Earth Sweetener Co., both of which filed GRAS requests with the FDA in May, reportedly received letters from the FDA stating that the administration has no objections to the use of stevia as a general-purpose sweetener in foods and beverages.
Coca-Cola is expected to launch a stevia-sweetened beverage this week, a move that, prior to today's announcement, would have come without GRAS approval. Coke would have set a precedent by introducing the ingredient ahead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's official go-ahead. Coke said it would use the natural, calorie-free sweetener in three of its Odwalla-brand fruit drinks. Pepsi had said it would hold off on launching stevia products in the U.S. until the ingredient gained official approval.
Stevia for use as a sweetener in foods was submitted to the FDA for GRAS approval in May. After 180 days, the FDA had not expressed any objections, so Coca-Cola claimed self-affirmed GRAS status and decided to launch its stevia-sweetened drinks.
"I was trying to think of other cases where companies have flouted the FDA, and I'm sure there must have been some minor players, but no brand as big as Coke," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a customer-loyalty and brand-equity consulting company.
As to why Coke would jump the gun while Pepsi waited for official approval, Passikoff said he has no answer. "It's one thing if there's an argument for significant differentiation and competitive advantage to be first to market. I'm not sure that's the case here. I'm not sure that the consumer knows what this ingredient is. It's not like they're introducing the first artificial-sweetened non-caloric beverage."