Stevia to the fore

by Jeff Gelski
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Jim May hesitated before tasting the leaf of a plant new to him in 1982. Mr. May finally tried it after some convincing from a Peace Corps worker who had brought the stevia plant from Paraguay to the United States.

"The longer I held it in my mouth, the sweeter it got," said Mr. May, now the president and chief executive officer of Wisdom Natural Brands, Gilbert, Ariz.

The experience marked the start of a career-long journey to introduce stevia-based sweeteners to the American diet. Twenty-six years later, several corporations have joined Mr. May in the promotion and supply of natural, stevia-based, zero-calorie sweeteners that are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Cargill, for example, plans to launch Truvia rebiana this year as a high-intensity sweetener for use in processed foods and beverages.

It would benefit stevia-based sweetener suppliers if the Food and Drug Administration approved the ingredient for use in foods and beverages. Available toxicological information on stevia is inadequate to demonstrate its safety as a food additive or its status as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), according to the F.D.A.

"It will get approved," Mr. May said. "There’s no question."

The recent buzz over stevia at least may have food and beverage formulators asking questions.

Is it safe?

The F.D.A. already approves the use of stevia-based sweeteners in dietary supplements.

"Technically, stevia is a sweetener that has been masquerading as a dietary supplement," Mr. May said.

Wisdom Natural Brands also has claimed GRAS status for its Sweet-Leaf tabletop sweeteners. GRAS Associates, L.L.C., Bend, Ore., affirmed the GRAS status for Wisdom Natural Brands after spending a year analyzing more than 1,000 studies on the sweetener, Mr. May said. The company specializes in the technical and regulatory aspects of obtaining and defending GRAS status for the food, supplement and chemical industries. Scientists who formerly worked for the F.D.A. now work for GRAS Associates, Mr. May said.

Twelve research papers confirmed the safety of rebiana, found in stevia leaves, and will appear in the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, said Steve Snyder, vice-president and global business director of highintensity sweeteners for Cargill. Cargill has sent results of the study to the F.D.A. One research paper addressed the requirements of obtaining GRAS status.

"Consistent with this process, the objectives of the (rebiana) scientific and regulatory program reported (in this supplement) were two-fold," the research paper said. "First, complete a safety assessment process that comprehensively examined the safety of rebiana for use in foods and beverages by consumers around the world.

"Then second, publish the results of this examination in a way that addresses the scientific gaps and resolves the confusion caused by decades of studies conducted with poorly characterized stevia products and studies conducted using intravenous administration, for example, to evaluate potential therapeutic benefits."

Corn Products International, Inc., Westchester, Ill., plans to file for regulatory approval of its Enliten brand stevia-based sweetener in the United States. The process is expected to take several years to complete.

How sweet is it?

Stevia-based sweeteners are comparable in sweetness levels to other high-intensity sweeteners, such as sucralose, which may be 600 times as sweet as sugar.

The SweetLeaf sweetener includes glycosides extracted from stevia leaves that are 250 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, according to Wisdom Natural Brands. Enliten from Corn Products International, Inc. will range from being 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar. The rebiana part of the stevia leaf is 200 times sweeter than sugar, according to Cargill.

Is it natural?

Stevia-based sweeteners have an edge over other high-intensity sweeteners in that they are natural, according to suppliers.

According to Cargill, "Truvia natural sweetener begins with a leaf, not in a lab. Stevia leaves are harvested and dried, and then steeped in fresh water in a process similar to that of making tea. This unlocks the best-tasting part of the leaf, which is then purified to make a food grade ingredient."

Companies may take a natural approach to processing the sweetener, Mr. May said. Wisdom Natural Brands avoids the use of solvents, alcohols and enzymes during the extraction process and instead uses only water.

Does it work in blends?

Mr. Snyder said Truvia natural sweetener may work in a range of food and beverage applications and in combination with a variety of sweeteners, including polyols.

Instead of polyols, Wisdom Natural Brands mixes its high-intensity sweetener with inulin, a soluble fiber that has a lower glycemic index than polyols but is also more expensive, Mr. May said.

Is it plentiful?

Wisdom Natural Brands offers its SweetLeaf as a tabletop sweetener. The company would need an increased supply of stevia leaves before it could offer the sweetener for use in foods and beverages, Mr. May said.

"We have requests from numerous food and beverage companies," he said.

Cargill earlier this year signed a 10-year supply agreement with GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver, B.C., for the supply of Rebaudioside A extract. GLG will provide a minimum of 80% of Cargill’s Rebaudioside A extract. GLG grows, refines and produces stevia extract and is engaged in the distribution of nutritional products in China. "GLG’s long-term vision along with its history in the growing areas and surrounding communities for stevia in China make them an excellent strategic partner," said Marcelo Montero, president of Cargill Health and Nutrition.

Corn Products International entered into an agreement with Morita Kagaku Kogyo Co. Ltd. of Osaka, Japan, for the exclusive license of its patented stevia strain, manufacturing technology and stevia production, along with global marketing and distribution rights. Corn Products also plans to invest $20 million to construct a dedicated stevia plant in Brazil.

What is the market potential?

Stevia represents 40% of the low-calorie or zero-calorie sweetener market in Japan, according to Cargill. The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, uses stevia-based sweeteners in its beverages in Japan and helped develop Cargill’s Truvia sweetener through a partnership between the two companies. For competitive reasons, Coca-Cola cannot discuss when it will offer beverages with Truvia in the United States, said Dr. Rhona Applebaum, vice-president and chief scientific and regulatory officer for The Coca-Cola Co.

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