For hundreds of years, people in Paraguay and Brazil have used a sweet leaf to sweeten bitter herbal teas including Yerba 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, is known as Stevia rebaudiana, and today it is under wholesale attack by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
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.”
- It is not toxic but, on the contrary, it is healthful, as shown by long experience and according to the studies of Dr. Rebaudi.
- It is a sweetening agent of great power.
- It can be employed directly in its natural state, (pulverized leaves).
- 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.