In just the last few weeks, both Australia and New Zealand approved stevia as a food and beverage ingredient, while a Washington, D.C. law firm petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to block such approval in the United States, arguing that the botanical is a drug and therefore cannot be legally added to foods.
Stevia is currently allowed for sale in the United States only as a dietary supplement because the FDA has, to date, refused to grant the ingredient generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status as a food additive, citing insufficient data on its safety. Other countries, notably Japan, have used stevia as a food and beverage sweetener since the 1970s, and stevia is now estimated to comprise 40% of the Japanese sweetener market. Stevia is also outlawed in Europe and Canada as a food and beverage additive.
Over the past few years, several companies have concurrently developed methods for isolating one of stevia’s sweetest components, Reb-A, and have quickly moved to attain self-affirmed GRAS status for their products in an effort to bring this stevia derivative into the U.S. sweetener market. This spring, Coca Cola, in partnership with Cargill, and PepsiCo, in partnership with Whole Earth Sweetener Co. (a subsidiary of Merisant), both announced that they had declared self-affirmed GRAS status for their Reb-A extractions and were planning to use them as beverage ingredients and as part of tabletop sweeteners to be launched later this year. Coke and Cargill have named their Reb-A sweetener rebiana, which is sold under the brand Truvia; PepsiCo and Whole Earth Sweetener Co. are calling their product PureVia. Both partnerships are supplied by PureCircle, a former Malaysian company that is now based in London.
Why all the fuss over this South American herb? For one, stevia is no ordinary sweetener. With zero calories, zero carbohydrates and zero chance of producing a spike in blood-sugar levels, stevia could mean big news for a sweets-obsessed country such as the United States, where the average person consumes an estimated 150 pounds of sugar and/or corn syrup each year, where diabetes affects 24 million people, and where obesity is growing into an epidemic of unimaginable proportions.
Stevia is also becoming a much more useful and practical sweetener. Now that researchers have developed procedures for extracting the plant’s sweetness—in the form of steviol glycoside rebaudioside-A (Reb-A)—without the characteristic licorice-like or bitter aftertaste of whole stevia, manufacturers have a viable, natural competitor for sucralose, aspartame and saccharine—artificial sweeteners that pose serious potential health hazards.
A survey of 194 million Americans conducted by the International Food Information Council in 2008 found that 43% to 45% of Americans want to decrease their use of aspartame, sucralose and saccharine—and 26% want to use more stevia. Said Jim May, founder and CEO of Wisdom Natural Brands, maker of SweetLeaf stevia: “There is no question: The world wants stevia. Consumers want stevia.”
Yet, questions remain about when and if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will allow the use of stevia as a food and beverage sweetener, and even whether there’s really enough stevia in the world to meet burgeoning demand. “The difficulties will be with supply,” said May.
Nutrition Business Journal’s Healthy Food and Beverage issue, which published this month, provides an in-depth look at stevia and the efforts of companies such as Cargill, Wisdom Natural Brands and others to bring this herb to the U.S. food and beverage market. To To order your copy or subscribe to NBJ, go to www.nutritionbusinessjournal.com.