Rescuing the Soda Pop Industry

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Stevia Leaf Rescues the Soda Pop Industry

by Bill Sardi by Bill Sardi

Long shunned by regulators and ignored by food and beverage processors in the U.S., the natural non-calorie sweetener known as rebaudioside A, an extract derived from the green leaves of the stevia plant, is coming to the rescue of the soda pop industry.

The current widespread financial crisis has States searching for a way to generate new revenues (New York wants an 18% tax that would put an estimated $400 million in its coffers), and using the guise they are interested in taming the burgeoning diabesity epidemic, States aim to tax sweetened soft drinks, allegedly to reduce consumption.

Facing such a threat, major soft drink manufacturers have quickly ushered in stevia leaf and its extracts for approval by the Food & Drug Administration, and manufacturers have obtained self-affirmed GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) from a panel of independent experts, which gives assurance it is safe to use in the general population.

FDA foot-dragging on stevia

The U.S. is late in adopting Stevia as a sweetener. Natural health advocates have grown wary of artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and saccharin. Even after stevia gained entrance to the U.S., it could not be labeled as a sweetener, only as a dietary supplement, which stunted its adoption by the public.

Foot-dragging by the FDA over stevia is just another issue that has not bode well with the public. Up till now, tabletop sweeteners at restaurants have been limited to the artificial molecules, like aspartame and sucralose. This is soon to change.

The U.S. is decades behind other countries in adoption of stevia leaf as a sweetener. Stevia was first used in South America, and was introduced to Japan in the 1970s and by 1988 it comprised 41% of the sweetener market there. It has been used in soft drinks in Japan for a number of years.

Rebaudioside A and other Stevia products are approved for general food use in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Russia, Israel (as of October 2008), Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and in a few other countries. RebA has been approved for use in dietary supplements in the U.S. since 1995.

Despite widespread use in foreign countries, with an apparent high safety profile, the Center for Science In The Public Interest has taken exception to the FDA’s quick approval of stevia and its extracts.

A last-minute scientific stir has been created by FDA approval of stevia extract, with arguments from different quarters that stevia needs more testing or that one study showed it may cause DNA mutations. But the FDA had been evaluating reams of data on stevia for years and only chose to approve stevia under recent pressure from the major soft drink makers. It’s obvious that none of the yellow flags being thrown by scientists have anything to do with public safety since these products have been used in human populations for years without apparent harm.

Just the 1983 increase in the federal tax on cigarettes saved 40,000 lives per year. Just how many cases of diabetes and obesity will be averted with the introduction of stevia is beyond estimation at this point. Some have heralded stevia as a "new drug candidate for the treatment of type 2 (adult onset) diabetes mellitus." [Metabolism 2006 Dec; 55(12):1674—80] Sadly, health promotion appears to be a secondary issue next to the commercial interests of beverage companies to maintain sales and State governments to raise revenues.

Taste still rules

Being forced to use stevia via economic pressure certainly doesn’t give major carbonated beverage manufacturers an image as health advocates, but under the threat of a tax that will surely reduce consumption (estimated 5% reduction in sales), and result in removal of all soda pop from vending machines in public schools, fizzy drink makers are certainly going to let the public know about this healthier option on product labels. Millions of consumers are likely to try the first brands that feature stevia and from there it will be up to the public’s taste buds to judge whether stevia becomes a rage among American soft drink users.

Not every beverage tastes good with stevia. Citrus drinks work best. A Wall Street Journal article says formulators are still working to produce a desirable cola taste with stevia.

One thing is for sure, as consumers drink more stevia sweetened drinks, the nation will get a better picture of how much high-fructose corn syrup has contributed to diabetes and obesity. The soft drink industry denies its products have contributed to burgeoning waistlines or high blood sugar.

Stevia suppliers vie for business

Recently companies like Blue California (Santa Margarita, California) have been able to extract a fraction of stevia leaf to produce an almost pure extract called rebaudioside A that is 400 times sweeter than table sugar. Blue California’s version of this natural sweetener, called Good & Sweet, is the first 97% extract to achieve GRAS status, and the company is ready to supply 1200 metric tons a year to food and beverage makers. Early on, insiders say Good & Sweet is the best-tasting stevia extract so far.

Good & Sweet will be offered as a tabletop sweetener under the brand name Bestevia™ to be distributed world-wide.

There are a lot of companies on Blue California’s doorstep these days, with major announcements that Blue California’s Good & Sweet has been selected by major food and beverage manufacturers anticipated soon.

The bidding for stevia is vigorous as companies seek to sign supply contracts before all the sources of stevia are depleted.

Other stevia manufacturers are jockeying for bragging rights. This includes the giant agricultural supplier Cargill, and other smaller players. Malaysia-based Pure Circle claims it can produce 1000 metric tons of stevia extract per year now, with larger amounts soon. Pure Circle offers a 95% stevia extract that has achieved GRAS status.

Cargill has developed Truvia for Coca Cola, but it is a blended sweetener that provides little stevia extract. Merisant supplies its Whole Earth Sweetener under the trade name PureVia for Pepsi Cola.

China-based Sunwin Internatural Nutraceuticals already sells its OnlySweet product in 4000 grocery stores, as well as bulk 40% stevia extract.

Consumers are certain to be confused when they see "stevia" emblazoned on soda pop bottles to attract consumers. Some drinks, being blends, are not solely sweetened by stevia, and some include eryrithritol, which is a natural sugar alcohol.

On those lists of what things are "in" and what things are "out" in the coming year, place aspartame, sucralose and saccharin on the "out" list, and "stevia" on the "in" list. It’s about time.

Bill Sardi [send him mail] is a frequent writer on health and political topics. His health writings can be found at He is the author of You Don’t Have To Be Afraid Of Cancer Anymore.

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