The FDA is continuing with its position regarding stevia, the South American herb with natural sweetening properties. In August 2007, Hain, a manufacturer of organic foods was issued a warning by the FDA for adding stevia as a sweetener to its line of teas.
The FDA’s approach to this herb is ambiguous. Back in 1991, the agency slapped a ban on imports of stevia, a controversial decision at the time given that stevia (which is derived from the plant stevia rebaudiana), has been used as a natural sweetener by people in South America, particularly Paraguay and Brazil for centuries before being discovered by the US.
In 1994, the ruling was changed, and allowed the herb, which is as much as 300 times as sweet as sugar to be sold as a dietary supplement, but banned its use as an additive. What this essentially means is that you can buy a can of stevia, and use it to sweeten your teas and coffees, but companies aren’t allowed to add it to sweeten prepackaged products. If you’re a manufacturer, you can advertise it as a nutritional supplement, but it cannot be mentioned as an additive.
Proponents of stevia claim that the herb has been used to sweeten drinks in South America from pre-Colombian times. Its first usage by native tribes was recorded by a scientist in 1887, and throughout its history of usage there have been no side effects or heath hazards reported. They point to the fact that stevia has been found to have no calories, and provides all the sweetness of sugar and then some without the ill effects.
Toxicologists aren’t impressed, however. Animal studies, they claim have revealed some carcinogenic properties, and also possible negative effects on fertility, making stevia not so sweet a deal for the consumer.
Stevia is widely consumed in Japan and China, although in smaller quantities. Scientists worry that the presence of this herb as a sweetener in diet foods which are consumed in large quantities by Americans could have potentially negative health effects. And the US isn’t alone in its distaste for stevia. The European Union, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore have all banned the herb.
As far as the FDA is concerned, they’re sticking to their guns and noting that some experts advise that if you absolutely must add stevia to your coffee, do it sparingly, until further tests prove it’s safe to use.