Europe holds its breath over stevia

Experts predict the EFSA will approve the sweetener next year

SteviaWhen will Europe approve stevia? That's the question on the lips of many in the global functional-ingredients sector, after the US Food & Drug Administration declared the natural zero-calorie sweetener Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) for use in food and drink applications.

The FDA agreed that Rebausioside A — a steviol glycoside commonly know as rebiana — presented no risk to human health. Its verdict, issued in December, followed applications for approval by sweetener manufacturers Cargill and Merisant.

The decision is likely to open the floodgates in the US for a raft of products containing the ingredient, with soft-drinks rivals Coca Cola and PepsiCo heading the queue. It also means stevia, a shrub in the chrysanthemum family that is native to northeastern Paraguay, is now approved for use as a sweetener in the US, Asia, South America, Australia and New Zealand.

In the European Union, however, stevia is permitted neither as a food ingredient nor a supplement, a situation that leaves Europe out of step with the rest of the world, according to Jan Geuns, president of the European Stevia Association (EUSTAS), which has applied for approval for the ingredient with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

"The FDA's decision is a good decision," Geuns told Functional Ingredients. "But I'm not surprised with the positive outcome as steviol glycosides are completely safe. Stevia is a natural compound and there is not one serious scientific publication proving any harmful effect. Now that stevia is authorised on most continents, Europe should follow. We hope the FDA's decision will be of help to our application."

The EUSTAS is optimistic that the EFSA will come to a decision on the ingredient fairly soon. "We hope the EFSA will find the time to read the application after June 2009," said Geuns. "Then we hope to get approval early 2010."

He added: "Stevia will be huge in Europe as it is the best and safest sweetener on the market. Many Europeans already know stevia and they are waiting for a free market." Peter Grosser, vice president of the EUSTAS, agreed the FDA GRAS verdict was positive news for the European stevia market. "A lot of people in government offices and the industry have woken up," he said. "Stevia is taken more seriously now. We have a lot of problems with the excessive consumption of sugar and synthetic sweeteners. Stevia is natural, doesn't have any calories and we haven't seen any worrying side effects for the consumer. Time is working in favour of stevia."

Grosser sounded a note of caution, however. "We welcome the fact Cargill and Merisant want to use stevia, as this attracts interest in Europe, too," he said. "On the other hand, I fear a collapse of the raw-material market because the cultivated area isn't big enough at this time."

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