Stevia, An Innocent Plant

Strong Arming an innocent herb by Linda and Bill Bonvie

IN THEIR REVEALING BOOK Toxic Sludge is Good for You, authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton chronicle the ways in which corporate propagandists pose as consumer advocates or hijack grassroots organizations to further the agendas of various industries. The most recent example of such flagrant misrepresentation can be found in the type of disinformation now emanating from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, often referred to as the “food police.” This supposed consumer watchdog organization that has waved high its anti-fat banner while remaining outrageously easy on certain harmful food additives, most notably aspartame and MSG, has hit a new low. CSPI, whose 30-year record of haranguing consumers about their food choices has included an irritating attack on ethnic food and a whine about dietary supplements, now is using its $13 million budget to shoot down the herb stevia with a manipulative report in its April “Nutrition Action Healthletter.”

This attack on a natural, noncaloric sweetener used for centuries in South America and for over a quarter century in Japan is a poorly thought-out attempt to discredit a beneficial herb that poses no threat whatsoever to human health but a potentially big one to corporate profits.

Stevia, 150 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, a plant native to Paraguay, is now enjoying increasing popularity, especially in Japan, where it has been thoroughly tested for toxicity and declared completely safe for human consumption.

No reports of adverse effects in people have ever been associated with stevia in its long history of use. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has full authority to take action against stevia — now sold in the United States as a dietary supplement — if any evidence that it harms humans exists. None does. Stevia, however, is credited by many people with having various beneficial health effects — particularly in stabilizing blood sugar (it is considered ideal for diabetics) and inhibiting tooth decay.

With a spin that might well have come from an industry public-relations flack, the CSPI article and accompanying press release about stevia cite poor and irrelevant science and fail to mention the wealth of research and historical data that has shown stevia to be perfectly safe. Even the two outside experts they quote take contradictory stands.

One, toxicologist Ryan Huxtable from the University of Arizona in Tucson, is quoted by CSPI as saying “the take home message is simply that we don’t know enough [about stevia].” In 1992, however, he had a different opinion. Endorsing a 45-page safety review on stevia by Douglas Kinghorn, professor of pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Huxtable said, “There seems little scientific reason for the FDA not to approve the use of stevia extracts in the United States.”

Professor Kinghorn also makes an appearance in the CSPI campaign: “The Japanese don’t consume large amounts of stevia,” he is quoted as saying in its report. He, too, contradicts himself in his 1992 review, Kinghorn states, “Stevia extracts and/or stevioside (a concentrated extract) have been widely used as sweetening agents in Japan over the last 15 years; . . . no adverse reactions have appeared in the scientific or medical literature during this period, and it may be concluded . . . that these materials do not present a potential toxicity risk to humans.”

The CSPI attack on stevia contrasts sharply with the group’s relatively benign treatment of aspartame (marketed chiefly as NutraSweet). Although the center gave aspartame a little yellow “caution, try to avoid” flag on its Web site’s food-additive section, its nutritionist, Jayne Hurley, once greeted reporters who came to find what CSPI staffers ate for lunch with aspartame-sweetened yogurt.

The most widely used synthetic sweetener in America, aspartame has long been associated with a variety of health problems, ranging from migraines to seizures to blindness, and it has resulted in thousands of consumer complaints to the Food and Drug Administration and Monsanto, Nutrasweet’s current maker. Before its introduction on the market, in fact, the FDA’s own scientists expressed concerns about its propensity to produce brain tumors in test animals, but were overruled by the FDA’s Reagan-era commissioner.

What has kept stevia from successfully competing with aspartame in the United States, however, is an FDA campaign to suppress it — initially via an “import alert” that appears to have been triggered by a trade complaint from an as-yet unidentified company (which evidence suggests was NutraSweet). It is now permitted to be marketed as a dietary supplement so long as it is not labeled as a “sweetener.”

The rationale given by the FDA for trying to keep stevia off the shelves was that it is an “unsafe food additive” based on an alleged paucity of research and a couple of studies that supposedly raised questions about its effects on reproduction.

But, in fact, there have been plenty of studies on stevia — many of them submitted in two petitions presented to the FDA seeking “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) status for the herb — as well as a long history of use. The latest attempt by the “food police” to strong-arm this sweet, innocent herb is nothing more than an empty imitation of the FDA’s transparent attempts to discredit stevia by ignoring all the existing positive data on it.

Especially egregious is an attempt by CSPI to suggest that a test-tube derivative of stevia called steviol might causes cancer. There is no evidence to show steviol can be produced from stevia when ingested by people. As Kinghorn himself has pointed out, “We do have the evidence from the Japanese that stevioside is not carcinogenic.”

With enemies like CSPI, the industrial barons squeezing the life out of our natural bounty need no friends. Given its record of downplaying the danger of aspartame and MSG, and now a smear campaign against stevia, the group is giving new validity to a moniker some critics have bestowed upon it, “Center for Science in the Corporate Interest.”