The European Union remains the world's last major market still not to have approved the use of ingredients derived from the stevia leaf in food and drink products. At last, however, it now looks as though the days of this dubious honour are numbered.
On April 14, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a positive opinion on the safety of stevia-based sweeteners, having evaluated dossiers submitted under the EU's food additives regulation by Cargill, the European Stevia Association (EUSTAS), and Japan-based Morita. EFSA said it was satisfied that sweeteners made with both 95 per cent purity (or above) steviol glycosides and high-purity Rebaudioside A were safe — a decision that was in tune with specifications for stevia agreed in 2008 by the FAO/World Health Organisation Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
EFSA's decision to approve both steviol glycosides and Reb A particularly delighted the ingredients industry. It was significant for two reasons: firstly because steviol glycosides are much cheaper than pure Reb A; and secondly because tests have consistently shown consumers prefer the taste of blends of steviol glycosides and Reb A to the taste of Reb A alone.
Nonetheless, final approval is no foregone conclusion. For one thing, official endorsement of EFSA's opinion by Europe's executive body is still some time away.
"After the positive opinion of EFSA, the European Commission has to approve it," explained Jan Geuns, president of EUSTAS. "Then each country has to change its laws. All this can take up to one year depending upon the speed of the administration."
France paves the way
There is one country where the impact of EFSA's decision is likely to be felt immediately. In September 2009, France's food industry regulator AFSSA approved the use of stevia in food and drink applications after being petitioned in June 2006 by Auvergne-based Stevia Natura (formerly known as Greensweet). The AFSSA decision was temporary for two years on the basis that the European Commission would be expected to make an EU-wide decision on the safety of stevia in the meantime.
Stevia Natura founder and CEO Joël Perret said this has resulted in a reluctance on the part of some businesses to take the plunge with stevia products in France. "Many companies have told me that they're not sure if the French authorisation will be extended after these two years," he explained. "They say: we could launch a product now and in two years the French authorisation could expire because the EU has not given an authorisation. That means it's too dangerous for us to launch a new product. Now this advice from EFSA will open the gate for authorisation at the European level, which means the French authorisation is not just for two years but forever, and companies will react positively to this, very soon, I think."
In any case, experience in other markets certainly suggests that if and when the Commission does approve stevia sweeteners, this will create a wave of related NPD in Europe.
According to research by Innova Market Insights, global launches of new products containing stevia rose from 166 in 2008 to 366 in 2009 in the wake of new approvals in territories such as the US, Australia and New Zealand.
In anticipation of Europe's new stevia dawn, EUSTAS has already begun drawing up plans to create a quality control scheme, backed by a label, for stevia ingredients. It will cover a wide range of parameters including purity, solubility and pesticide residues in a bid to assure manufacturers and consumers that a batch of stevia is safe.
Having negotiated the regulatory hurdles, persuading consumers of the benefits of products sweetened with stevia will be the industry's next challenge. There is evidence to suggest that consumers will welcome an all-natural alternative to artificial sweeteners in low-calorie products. But Perret said he believes companies should think carefully before simply swapping out artificial sweeteners and sugar from existing products and replacing them with stevia-based sweeteners.
"Stevia isn't just a replacement that gives exactly the same product in terms of taste and organoleptics," he said. "If you just replace aspartame or sucrose, for example, with a stevia product without telling the consumer, you can have some problems. So it's much better, in my view, to launch a totally new product."