Type in “aspartame” or “sucralose” into a search engine, and you’re bound to come up with all sorts of hits linking the two artificial sweeteners to some sort of malady. Never mind that the Food and Drug Administration says they are safe.
Now, the FDA soon may give the green light to zero-calorie sweeteners derived from stevia, a shrub. Stevia-based sweeteners are regarded as natural, a Holy Grail for makers of soda and other products because it is believed they will appeal to health-conscious consumers.
Major U.S. beverage companies PepsiCo Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. are eager to launch stevia-sweetened products once the FDA gives its blessing. Agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. has a stevia-based sweetener in grocery stores, and Chicago-based Merisant Co., maker of the popular sweetener Equal, soon will do the same.
Federal law allows companies to self-certify products as safe prior to an FDA decision on the matter, even if concerns are being voiced about their safety. But the big beverage companies are waiting because they don’t want to have to pull products in case the FDA says no.
And concerns are being voiced about potential cancer-causing properties of stevia, particularly by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food watchdog group that is urging that the FDA do more testing.
Artificial sweeteners, from saccharin to aspartame to sucralose, long have been vital to the production of diet food and drinks. But from careful scientific studies to “Internet quackery,” they also have been dogged by health concerns, said Mike Richardson, an industry analyst at consultant Freedonia Group.
Rival artificial sweeteners have fought each other over purported health claims. Merisant sued Johnson & Johnson, the maker of sucralose-based Splenda, claiming Splenda’s advertising misleadingly implied that it was more natural and healthy. The two companies settled the matter last year but did not disclose the terms.
Health concerns about stevia will probably linger, too, even after any FDA approval, Richardson said. But, he said, “the plant origin of stevia will mitigate that to some extent.”
Stevia is native to South America and historically has been used as a sweetener by people in those lands. A few decades ago, Japan developed commercial stevia-based sweeteners, and such products are widely used in several other Asian countries.
Australia also recently approved stevia as a sweetener. Meanwhile, an international scientific committee affiliated with the World Health Organization this year concluded that highly pure stevia extracts are safe.
Still, stevia-based sweeteners are banned in much of Europe. In the United States they have been prohibited as a food additive; that’s what’s pending before the FDA.
Federal rules haven’t been stevia’s only problem: As a sweetener, it created an unpleasant, licorice-like aftertaste, which researchers have struggled to erase. Cargill and Merisant believe they’ve found the answer in their Truvia and PureVia sweeteners, respectively, that will be the labels for all their stevia-based products.
Both contain rebaudioside A, a natural compound derived from the sweetest and best-tasting part of the stevia plant. By isolating that compound, the companies believe they can strip out bad aftertastes and create a product that’s much purer than stevia-based food additives so far frowned on by the FDA.