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Stevia and the FDA: friends or foes?

There is a lot of speculation on the troubled relationship between stevia and the FDA. In the 1980's, when the Food and Drug Administration had just gone through much trouble to approve aspartame as a sugar replacement, they had to find a way to keep stevia off the market.

 

After all, the sweet leaf plant is 100% natural, has no calories and no glycemic index. The main problem with any natural sugar subtitute though, lies in the monetization potential: you can't patent them (unless you mix them with an artificial product, slap a name on it and patent that name - we'll cover that a bit later). Therefore, a natural product such as stevia could potentially mean a devastating blow for profits, once people found out it existed.

A nationwide witch-hunt was inevitable: the FDA published reports of dubious studies on stevia (some of these studies were funded by aspartame producing companies), branding the sweetener as unsafe and spreading rumors about stevia causing cancer and infertility in rats. Later though, these dangers of stevia would be refuted. An import ban on stevia was set in place and large amounts of the sweet leaf plant were consequently destroyed at the border.

stevia and the fdaThe anti-stevia movement reached its peak in 1998, when the FDA ordered the Texas-based Stevita Company, led by Mr. Oscar Rodes, to destroy its publications on the plant's history and safety, as well as cookbooks promoting the use of stevia in various recipes. They claimed that the distribution of this literature was an infringement on the stevia ban, and thus the law. 

When the media got word of this story, the FDA was bombarded with questions and complaints, and they eventually caved. The books weren't to be destroyed after all, but Mr. Rodes was forced to remove any indications from his stevia products that suggest the use of raw stevia to sweeten food. 

And the books? Their covers were stamped by the FDA, so that they could no longer be sold - an act for which the FDA is not even authorized...

Up until 2008, the FDA still labeled the chemically altered rebaudioside A extract as safe as a dietary supplement, but raw stevia as a sweetener is unsafe as a food additive... Are you still with me? But, as is often the case, lobbying and pressure from big companies swayed the vote. This time though, in favor of stevia. At the end of 2008, Coca Cola (with Truvia) and Pepsi (with PureVia) must have thought: "if you can't beat them, join them!". 

 

The dangers of aspartame are no longer a secret to the average Joe, and although diet coke still has a strong market, both companies saw solid growth potential in the sweet leaf. They have put pressure on the FDA to allow for production of new products containing chemically altered stevia - keep in mind that natural products are not eligible for patenting. The FDA, finally granted stevia GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) approval.

 

As you're reading this, both Coca Cola and Pepsi are in the process of developing a new product line, but most stevia supporters are wary to say the least. They know that stevia in the raw is safe, but what happens when you start altering it with chemicals? Can we really trust these tycoons with our safety and our health? Or are big bucks their ultimate priority? Unfortunately, because Truvia is still a relatively new product, no independent studies have seen the light of day. For now, we must assume that time will tell...




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