The approval given by the FDA to the zero-calorie, all-natural sweetener stevia has steered strong debate over the safety of such sugar substitutes.
In December of 2008, two new brands containing sweet extracts of the shrub, Stevia Rebaudiana passed an FDA review. The two brands – Cargill’s Truvia which is owned by The Coca Cola Company and PepsiCo’s PureVia developed in collaboration with Merisant – are expected to arrive on department store shelves soon. The excitement in the industry is palpable, especially because these are the first all-natural stevia-based sweeteners that have been approved for use by the FDA for use as sweeteners.
Both Cargill and Merisant claim that they have managed to eliminate the natural licorice taste of the stevia leaves. The two soft drink giants will initially introduce stevia sweetened drinks and beverages in the market. Coca Cola is coming out with Sprite Green and Truvia. Pepsi is introducing several fruit flavors of SoBe Lifewaters sweetened with PureVia.
Amidst all the excitement, concerns are rising that the FDA has been hasty in granting approval to the stevia based sweeteners. According to Michel Jacobson, Head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, studies have found a link between stevia and damage to genetic material. Tests also suggest that Rebaudioside A increases the risk of cancer. Jacobson is calling for more testing to be done before stevia is allowed to be added to foods and drinks.
Coca Cola and PepsiCo have obviously disputed the veracity of this data saying that FDA approval has come through more than 25 years of extensive research into stevia’s safety. Besides, the two companies have commissioned their own studies into stevia safety, and all research has concluded that these sweeteners are generally regarded as safe for use as general purpose sweeteners.
Jacobson believes that these sweeteners will be an instant success, but he is calling for in-depth testing before they are made available to the general public.
The concerns of stevia are linked to past controversies over health effects related to other sugar substitutes. Cyclamate and saccharine have been linked to cancer and other health scares. Aspartame has been associated by some Italian researchers to leukemia. The concerns over stevia look less likely to be dissipated just because the product is derived from a plant source. Expect much more debate over stevia as the demand for these herbal sweeteners increases.