Stevia Leaf – Too Good To Be Legal?

by Rob McCaleb, Herb Research Foundation

For hundreds of years, people in Paraguay and Brazil have used a sweet leaf to sweeten bitter herbal teas including mate. For nearly 20 years, Japanese consumers by the millions have used extracts of the same plant as a safe, natural, non-caloric sweetener. The plant is stevia, formally known as Stevia rebaudiana, and today it is under wholesale attack by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Stevia is a fairly unassuming perennial shrub of the aster family (Asteraceae), native to the northern regions of South America. It has now been grown commercially in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Central America, the United States, Israel, Thailand and China. The leaves contain several chemicals called glycosides, which taste sweet, but do not provide calories. The major glycoside is called stevioside, and is one of the major sweeteners in use in Japan and Korea. Stevia and its extracts have captured over 40% of the Japanese market. Major multinational food companies like Coca Cola and Beatrice foods, convinced of its safety, use stevia extracts to sweeten foods for sale in Japan, Brazil, and other countries where it is approved. Europeans first learned of stevia when the Spanish Conquistadors of the Sixteenth Century sent word to Spain that the natives of South America had used the plant to sweeten herbal tea since “ancient times”.

The saga of American interest in stevia began around the turn of the Twentieth Century when researchers in Brazil started hearing about “a plant with leaves so sweet that a part of one would sweeten a whole gourd full of mate.” The plant had been described in 1899 by Dr. M. S. Bertoni. In 1921 the American Trade Commissioner to Paraguay commented in a letter “Although known to science for thirty years and used by the Indians for a much longer period nothing has been done commercially with the plant. This has been due to a lack of interest on the part of capital and to the difficulty of cultivation.”

Dr. Bertoni wrote some of the earliest articles on the plant in 1905 and 1918. In the latter article he notes:

“The principal importance of Ka he’e (stevia) is due to the possibility of substituting it for saccharine. It presents these great advantages over saccharine:

  1. It is not toxic but, on the contrary, it is healthful, as shown by long experience and according to the studies of Dr. Rebaudi.
  2. It is a sweetening agent of great power.
  3. It can be employed directly in its natural state, (pulverized leaves).
  4. It is much cheaper than saccharine.”

Unfortunately, this last point may have been the undoing of stevia. Noncaloric sweeteners are a big business in the U.S., as are caloric sweeteners like sugar and the sugar-alcohols, sorbital, mannitol and xylitol. It is small wonder that the powerful sweetener interests here, do not want the natural, inexpensive, and non-patentable stevia approved in the U.S.

In the 1970s, the Japanese government approved the plant, and food manufacturers began using stevia extracts to sweeten everything from sweet soy sauce and pickles to diet Coke. Researchers found the extract interesting, resulting in dozens of well-designed studies of its safety, chemistry and stability for use in different food products. Various writers have praised the taste of the extracts, which has much less of the bitter aftertaste prevalent in most noncaloric sweeteners. In addition to Japan, other governments have approved stevia and stevioside, including those of Brazil, China and South Korea, among others. Unfortunately, the US was destined to be a different story. Stevia has been safely used in this country for over ten years, but a
few years ago, the trouble began.

FDA Attack on Stevia

Around 1987, FDA inspectors began visiting herb companies who were selling stevia, telling them to stop using it because it is an “unapproved food additive”. By mid 1990 several companies had been visited. In one case FDA’s inspector reportedly told a company president they were trying to get people to stop using stevia “because Nutra Sweet complained to FDA.” The Herb Research Foundation(HRF), which has extensive scientific files on stevia, became concerned and filed a Freedom of Information Act request with FDA for information about contacts between Nutra Sweet and FDA about stevia. It took over a year to get any information from the FDA, but the identity of the company who prompted the FDA action was masked by the agency.

In May, 1991 FDA acted by imposing an import alert on stevia to prevent it from being imported into the US. They also began formally warning companies to stop using the “illegal” herb. By the beginning of 1991, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) was working to defend stevia. At their general meeting at Natural Products Expo West, members of the industry pledged most of the needed funds to support work to convince FDA of the safety of stevia. AHPA contracted HRF to produce a professional review of the stevia literature. The review was conducted by Doug Kinghorn, PhD., one of the world’s leading authorities on stevia and other natural non-nutritive sweeteners. Dr. Kinghorn’s report was peer-reviewed by several other plant safety experts and concluded that historical and current common use of stevia, and the scientific evidence all support the safety of this plant for use in foods. Based on this report, and other evidence, AHPA filed a petition with FDA in late October asking FDA’s “acquiescence and concurrence” that stevia leaf is exempt from food additive regulations and can be used in foods.

FDA, apparently attempting to regulate this herb as they would a new food additive, contends that there is inadequate evidence to approve stevia. However, because of its use in Japan, there is much more scientific evidence of stevia’s safety than for most foods and additives. The extent of evidence FDA is demanding for the approval of stevia, far exceeds that which has been required to approve even new synthetic food chemicals like aspartame (Nutra Sweet).

AHPA’s petition points out that FDA’s food additive laws were meant to protect consumers from synthetic chemicals added to food. FDA is trying, in the case of stevia to claim that stevia is the same as a chemical food additive. But as the AHPA petition points out, Congress did not intend food additive legislation to regulate natural constituents of food itself. In fact, Congressman Delaney said in 1956, “There is hardly a food sold in the market today which has not had some chemicals used on or in it at some stage in its production, processing, packaging, transportation or storage.” He stressed that his proposed bill was to assure the safety of “new chemicals that are being used in our daily food supply,” and when asked if the regulations would apply to whole foods, he replied “No, to food chemicals only.”

AHPA contends that stevia is a food, which is already recognized as safe because of its long history of food use. Foods which have a long history of safe use are exempted by law from the extensive laboratory tests required of new food chemicals. The AHPA petition, however, supports the safe use of stevia with both the historical record, and references to the numerous toxicology studies conducted during the approval process in Japan, and studies by interested researchers in other countries.

To date, the FDA still refuses to allow stevia to be sold in the U.S. but the recently-enacted Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 may prevent the FDA from treating stevia and other natural herbs as “food additives.”


23 Responses to “Stevia Leaf – Too Good To Be Legal?”

  1. JULIUS COHEN on December 4th, 2007 3:25 pm

    Outrageous is what I would label the actions of the FDA with regard to Stevia. Given the epidemic of diabetes in the US and crocodile tears over the incidence of obesity by our government, one would think that a safe botanical such as S. would gain open arms acceptance. Its not about health with the FDA. Its about money,politics and influence. A Federal lawsuit could well but this matter to rest as well as an assault on congress. But maybe not as it appears that they are as corrupt as the FDA if not more so.

    Julius Cohen
    Emporia KS.

  2. JULIUS COHEN on December 4th, 2007 3:38 pm

    It appears that there is ample grounds for a Federal lawsuit seeking an injunction with a request for estople of harassment by the FDA, This matter should also be called to the attention of Lou Dobbs on CNN
    as a cause on which he thrives. It could get National publicity as part of the health care issue that is of such great concern. We’ll get nowhere talking to ourselves or the FDA bureaucracy who are into the pockets of big business.

    Dr. Julius Cohehn

  3. Arnold Sturm on December 7th, 2007 10:53 am

    I am interested in Stevia. Who distributes it? Where can it be purchased? What are the side effects of its prolonged use in large quantities? Can it be used in baking? How is its purity guaranteed?
    Thanks, Arnold

  4. kay martin on January 6th, 2008 7:06 pm

    I stopped using ‘normal’ synthetic sugars and non-synthetic as I found I was retaining my weight despite and getting very sick on products with aspartame. Then, stevia products at ‘natural’ food stores came into view ….back in 2006. My very alert daughter told me about it…in all of its forms…liquid, powder..for hot/cold drinks, cooking, salads. I have not been nauseated one time, nor has she this last 10 years. Diabetes and hyper-hypoglycemia is in my family. I needed a way to opt out of the mounds of products with sugar, all sugars. My drinks taste better, have no side effects, food generally tastes great w/no aftertaste. Surf the web to get a clearer picture.

  5. Colleen on February 19th, 2008 4:43 am

    It is very obvious that the FDA is in bed with the big business community, they are not interested in the safety of natural foods or that they have been used for hundreds and even thousands of years, which is obvious proof of safety. If this were not the case then mankind would have poisoned itself out of existence. The FDA are only interested in lining their own coffers, after all they are the Food & Drug Administration, nothing in there about NATURAL so why are we surprised at the way they conduct their business? Stevia is a threat to their bed partners.

  6. nissim kedem on March 7th, 2008 12:51 am

    is stevia safe for children? what ages… thanks

  7. Denny Barth on April 13th, 2008 10:52 am

    I thought the Constitution guaranteed us the right of pursuit of happiness, which I interpret as including “well-being.” Stevia, I think, has passed the tests which permit “chemical sweeteners” to be sold in America. Yet, the FDA prohibits Stevia which has been proven to be safe in South America, Japan, Korea and even Europe. In addition, Stevia is a natural-occurring product that has been in use for centuries. “Well-being” is the term I would throw back to the FDA. Why in the world would our own American authorities deny our needs when we are in epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

  8. Laura Lamb on June 14th, 2008 4:29 pm

    I recently returned to the USA after spending two years as a village volunteer in a small Xhosa village about 28 km outside of the non-European city of Mthatha (Umtats) in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
    I found myself responding for requests for medical assistance and advocacy. I large percentage of adults had the syndrum of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Their diets consist of a high percentage of refined carbohydrates and highly fat meat (when meat is available). As their drinking water is usually impure, their usual liquids are tea and coffee sweetened by three to four rounded teaspoons of sugar.

    For this reason, I researched the availability of stevia seeds or plants within South Africa. Despite any animal tests of high quantities of stevia showing “some” adverse test results, compared with the consequences of uncontrolled diabetes. After many months I was able to buy the seeds just before leaving South Africa. In the spring planting season, I have arranged for the seeds to be planted and plants distributed free-of-charge to interested villagers, along with planting instructions that I had compiled.

    This sweet herb has the potential of reducing the villagers’ purchase of large quantities of sugar, making the funds available for more healthy foods. This is doubly important at this time of inflation of their other purchased food.

  9. rhona on December 5th, 2008 9:11 am

    Were can i find this plant in South Africa

  10. Jose Martinez on March 11th, 2009 10:43 pm

    Where can I get stevia plants in the USA or Mexico

  11. Jose Martinez on March 13th, 2009 3:38 pm

    If I did produced stevia leaves where could I sell them at wholesale? Is there an important buyer that might be interested in my crop?

  12. Debbi Semple on May 22nd, 2009 11:03 pm

    I would like to know if stevia can be made into
    products to sell in canada.

  13. charles on February 18th, 2010 1:36 am

    I have to say i just tried my first cup of green tea with stevia, and i must say, i will never stop using this natural sweetener. how sweet it is!!. I enjoyed the fact that stevia is free from the i’ll effects of the other poisens.I have finally found an replacment for sugar. For those of u looking for this godsend, I purchased it at SAFEWAY SUPERMARKETS NORTHERN CALIFORNIA USA.

  14. stuart on April 7th, 2010 7:39 am

    I am looking for Stevia growers in South Africa, and help would be appreciated.

  15. Florman on April 24th, 2010 1:33 pm

    The FDA is just being itself, protecting big name products against natural, cheap but effective and harmless herbals. Natural foods that exist naturally in nature (not man made) can not be patented even if safe and effective. There will never be enough scientific tests for them even after countries all over the world have approved them. Patented food and drug are where the money is. Cheap natural food that compete with patented products get killed by FDA.

    Today I discovered, at WalMart, a product called Sun Crystals and read that it contained stevia and sugar cane. I tired just a sprinkling on a bowl of oatmeal to see how much is needed. It was sweet enough with just one sprinkle of Sun Crystal. the big question is, Is this still considered natural now that it is packaged?
    Nevertheless I will be using this product from now on. I think they have recently put this in the market. Has the FDA approved this? I don’t know but the box did not say it had FDA approval

  16. Screw the FDA on May 10th, 2010 2:08 pm

    The FDA will attack anyone if they get enough money from interest groups.

    The ONLY threat from Stevia is on the sugar industry. BOO HOO!

    We’ve gone through this already with Nutrasweet and Splenda. Nutrasweet was being dumped into everything because it was an American product – Splenda, being from the UK, was touted as “dangerous” and “unstudied” even though it was formulated in 1976.

    So as far as I’m concerned, our FDA can go F themselves. They are nothing more than shills to special interest.

  17. Geoffrey on May 17th, 2010 2:00 pm

    If you really want to know something about the FDA’s corrupt ways just google aspartame. The FDA continuously rejected the additive, so the company bribed the director of the fda, and he over-rode the board’s rejections, approved it, and a short time later went to work for that company as a public affairs rep. That stuff is lethal, yet the fda, medical community, and food industries won’t stop it’s use because it would hit their bottom lines, and it brings patients into the Dr’s office.

  18. vocao on August 11th, 2010 7:11 pm

    I’ve been using stevia in the past 3 months. The drink made from dried leaves is not only tasted good but also helps in lowering my blood sugar level.
    I purchase stevia plants from Lowe’s in San Jose, California.

  19. Sally Wilkinson on February 25th, 2011 9:32 am

    Hi Can anyone please tell me if stevia can be used legally in South Africa?

  20. Kay on June 8th, 2011 5:10 am

    Yes, it is legal is South Africa. Sold in Health shops, and even in shops such as Pick n pay (in the health sections)

  21. helen on August 30th, 2012 9:58 am

    Read info on stevia,will look today to purchase,what is the long term advantage/disadvantages?thank you.

  22. helen on August 30th, 2012 10:07 am

    I wonder if I could find stevia plants or seeds in my area. And if I can grow for our family and friends? Anyone out there with info? Please post an answer.we live in the Fresno califiornia area. _

  23. Louise on December 11th, 2012 2:28 pm

    Just let Monsanto genetically modify Stevia and the FDA will approve it without a bit of problem.

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