Stevia, a natural sweetener derived from the leaves of a Paraguayan plant Stevia rebaudiana, is heralded as up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. The food industry has been keen to make use of this substance for years, but Stevia has long been suspected of causing cancer. However, after the European Authority for Food Safety (EFSA) allayed health concerns about Stevia in 2010 the European Commission (EC) has now decided Stevia is safe, provided maximum use is kept to an appropriate level. Commission regulation (EU) No. 1131/2011, which introduces the new sweetener, became effective early in December 2011. The new additive will be found listed as E 960 on food products.
Stevia will most likely be used for sweetening low-calorie soft drinks. However, the food industry also plans to use the substance in yogurt, cereals and chocolate. One of the reasons given by the EC for their approval is the "need for new, reduced-calorie products."
The European Commission formally adopted the regulation (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:295:0205:0211:EN:PDF permitting the use of steviol glycosides as a sweetener for foods and beverages throughout all 27 member states of the European Union. After the granting of individual approval by the Member States during the summer and signing by Commission President Barroso on November 11, it was published on November 12 in the Official Journal of the EU, thus becoming effective 20 days later, on December 2, 2011. According to the EU, the EFSA has verified the safety of the substance, despite the fact Stevia was long suspected as a possible carcinogenic and genotoxic substance. The level of maximum exposure of the public to the additive will not be known until the food industry has determined all its possible uses and the regulation provides for a subsequent review to establish maximum permitted concentrations.
Food additives are defined as substances that preserve or sweeten foodstuffs. Approval is only granted to food additives that provide a benefit to the consumer, for example a longer shelf life, and are found not to be harmful. It is mandatory to indicate additives in the list of ingredients of foodstuffs in the EU by quoting “E” numbers or their full name (see updated list of food additives in the EU). By 2020, the EFSA will review all 320 approved additives that are currently allowed in the EU. This includes the controversial sweetener Aspartame.
The use of additives in food will soon become even safer and more transparent in the EU than it currently is, thanks to two further legislations that were adopted by the European Commission during November 2011. Based on these legislations, the Commission has prepared two new lists. The first list concerns additives in foodstuffs that will come into effect in June 2013. A freely accessible online database will allow consumers to identify which additives are authorized in a particular food. The second list consists of additives in food ingredients, such as flavors, nutrients and enzymes. This list will take effect in the coming weeks. The establishment of these two lists is an important step in the implementation of the framework Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 on food additives that was adopted in December 2008.
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