Stevia: From raids to praise

Fi caught up with Oscar Rodes, founder of Stevita Stevia, a small Arlington, Texas-based distributor of stevia, to get his perspective on how the climate surrounding stevia has changed in the past decade. Rodes was the recipient (or victim) of two Food and Drug Administration raids in 1991 and 1998, respectively, for selling stevia in a tea, rather than a powder form, and for marketing the sweet leaf via third-party books, which were deemed 'offending literature,' and thus confiscated.

"I was recently at an HEB grocery store and counted four stevia products in the sweetener aisle," he says. Rodes expects that within two years, Splenda and aspartame sweeteners will be outnumbered by stevia-based products. "I survived. But it has been very difficult," he says. "Now after many years of fearing whether a stevia query at a trade show might be from an undercover FDA agent, I finally see the day when I can market stevia as the product that it is — a sweetener."

So, why the change of heart from the FDA? Rodes predicts that stevia will gain GRAS status very soon, and he attributes the progress to two factors ? expired patents for aspartame (1992) and Splenda (2005), and efforts by Cargill to secure self-affirmed GRAS status. Rodes feels strongly that once the patents for the two primary sweeteners were winding down, the competitive pressure changed significantly in favor of stevia. Though he attributes introducing Cargill to the concept of stevia combined with erythritol in 2000, Rodes says he lacked the money to research the possibilities. Cargill had both the money and the human resources to explore the concept. "Personally, I am very glad that Cargill continued the research and put up the money for stevia's GRAS status." Rodes predicts that within the next few years, stevia will own 20 per cent of the sweetener market.

There is one caveat, he warns: quality, especially when it comes to growing and extraction methods. Rodes says that to truly obtain a naturally extracted stevia, ethanol is the preferred means of extraction — not methanol, which is commonly used in China. The other concern is water quality for irrigation, because contaminants can pass to the plants and leaf composition.

How sweet it is timeline

USDA scientist discovers stevia in a maté drink

Stevia is approved as a noncaloric sweetener in Japan

The FDA approves aspartame (created and branded in 1965)

The FDA bans stevia, raids Stevita Stevia for selling stevia tea

The FDA rejects stevia GRAS application. Aspartame patent expires 1995
The FDA oks stevia as dietary supplement

The FDA raids Stevita Stevia for 'offensive' literature — same year the FDA approves sucralose (Splenda)

Splenda introduced to US consumers. Monsanto sells aspartame brands to Merisant

Sucralose patent expires

Coca Cola files 24 patents for stevia

Whole Earth Sweetener (subsidiary of Merisant) gains GRAS status for Reb-A, Cargill gains GRAS status for TRUVIA
Wisdom Natural Brands releases first stevia tabletop sweetener
Pepsi and Whole Earth Sweetener release a Sobe-Life beverage, with PureVia to Latin American markets
DC law firm files petition to the FDA that stevia should be a 'drug'
Chromadex and Cargill forge alliance to certify stevia for authenticity
FDA grants stevia GRAS certification

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