Study raises hope for stevia

Anew study highlighting the safety of the herb Stevia rebaudiana has increased pressure for the sweetener to be legalised in markets around the world. Stevia is currently only permitted as an ingredient in foods in parts of South America, Switzerland and some eastern European countries, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and South Africa, and as a dietary supplement in the US.

The South American herb 300 times sweeter than table sugar has been banned in the European Union since 2000 after a widely condemned study found stevioside, the zero-calorie sweet component of the herb, to be potentially toxic.

The new research, conducted at the Leuven Catholic University in Belgium, has been sent to food authorities around the world, and will be presented to food agencies in all European Union member states. Its authors hope it will help the drive to legalise stevioside use in many markets.

A separate report citing similar findings was sent to the World Health Organization?s Joint Expert Committee for Food Additives (JECFA) last year, which led to JECFA establishing an RDI of 2mg/kg body weight for steviol. However, JECFA asked for additional research on the effects of low and high concentrations in consumers with hypo- and normotension, insuline dependence, independent diabetes, further stability studies and a better specification of the steviol glycoside mixture.

?Stevioside is a natural sweetener with no known side effects, and it can help diabetics as well as those with obesity,? one of the study?s authors, professor Jan Geuns, said. ?We have to do additional research on this and hope to complete it by the middle of next year. Our study will be the first clinical study presented to the European Commission.?

Geuns said stevia had great potential on the European market, especially with EU sugar subsidies likely to end next year. An application is pending to legalise stevioside in Australia, he noted.

Despite being permitted only as a dietary supplement or supplement ingredient, stevioside use is on the rise in the US, where it is being sold in other forms such as teas and shake formulations marketed as dietary supplements. It is also sold in a stand-alone form that for all intents and purposes is a sweetener.

Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands markets a stevioside range and has reported increasing sales. Chief operating officer Steve May estimates the US regulatory environment has shrunk the stevia market by about 500 per cent. ?The market would be $100 million larger if the government allowed its use as a sweetener,? he said. May estimated the retail market for products containing stevia at about $20 million but did not expect the herb?s regulatory status to change in the near future. ?The FDA requires industry file a petition to request a change in the regulatory status,? he said. ?These can be very costly. Current law requires stevia, a natural product, to meet the same safety review as chemical products used in food. Current law also denies any economic recovery mechanism for the company that pays the costs of approval of a natural product.

?So, while the patent laws encourage companies to develop chemical products and submit them for approval, the law provides an enormous disincentive to bear the cost of the food additive approval process for stevia. I do not know of any serious effort to change the current law that limits stevia use to the confines of the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act."

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