MINNEAPOLIS – An ultra-secret project begun years ago by two corporate giants broke into the open Thursday as Coca-Cola and Cargill announced they have developed a new sweetener from the stevia plant, a South American bush known to locals as honey leaf.
The announcement could up-end the world of sweeteners in which aspartame, Sucralose and other concoctions are valued for their ability to trick the tongue with sweet tastes that have nothing to do with natural sugar.
Unlike competitors, the new zero-calorie sweetener can claim itself all-natural.
“This has been a closely held secret for a while,” said Zanna McFerson, business director for Cargill Sweetness Solutions, the division that handles the company’s roughly 20 sweeteners.
The two companies said their scientists isolated an organic compound called rebiana found in the leaves of the plant, using taste panels to determine the best tasting version of the plant.
“It’s a clean, sweet taste,” said McFerson.
It would be available in one year at the soonest in countries like Japan, where stevia is already a widely used table-top sweetener. The sweetener, known for now as rebiana, would appeal to consumers who want a natural alternative and to companies seeking relief from the pressure that ethanol has put on the price of high fructose corn syrup.
But whether it appears on U.S. food shelves anytime soon is another question.
The stevia plant and its derivatives do not have Food and Drug Administration approval for use as a food additive in the United States, and as recently as 1995 there was an import ban. The FDA has turned down up to three requests since 1989 from food companies to use the plant. The ban was lifted in 1995, but stevia-derived sweeteners have approval only as a dietary supplement in the United States, not a food additive.
A 1985 National Academy of Sciences study raised concerns over stevia and possible liver damage. Some studies have also linked it to infertility in men.
The sweetener has won unfavorable reviews from several major regulatory bodies, including the World Health Organization, the European Union and the Canadian version of the FDA, the Food Inspection Agency.
A WHO study conducted last year found no evidence that stevia was toxic, but said more study was needed to determine the acceptable daily intake.
Yet stevia sweeteners are approved for food use in 12 countries including China, Japan and Brazil, and it has many supporters in the dietary supplement industry who say it’s the victim of bad science.
McFerson disputes the findings of the 1985 study, saying it was done “quite a while ago” and that the FDA’s decision hasn’t been challenged because it’s difficult to win regulatory approval for a new food ingredient, regardless of its testing.
The company expects to show through peer-reviewed studies that rebiana should win FDA approval.
A call to the FDA was not immediately returned. The agency published a letter last year stating that “available toxicological information on stevia is inadequate to demonstrate its safety as a food additive or to affirm its status as” safe.
It has shown up on foods imported from Japan, including radishes and seafood, but any food items containing the sweetener are subject to FDA seizure.
The sweetener comes from the leaves of the stevia plant, commonly found in Central and South America. The variety of plant that produces sugar is known as stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, named for the scientist who discovered stevia more than 100 years ago.
Some 80 percent of the stevia production is in China today.
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