THE Outlaw Sweetener

Despite centuries of proven safety, substitutes can’t get government approval

Imagine an all-natural sweetener that packs 200 times the punch of cane or beet sugar, has been proven safe, and contains no calories. ( Too good to be true?)

Well, stevia. an herb indigenous to Paraguay, has been used for centuries in parts of South America and has become a popular sweetener in many Asian countries. In Japan, for instance, extracts of stevia have been used to sweeten pickles. sea-foods, meat pastes, soybean products, and many other foods and beverages—even Coca-Cola. But don’t waste your time trying to find it at your local grocery store, because stevia is considered a controlled substance in the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has refused to approve the herb as sweetener. (It is available as a “dietary additive.”) The agency did allow stevia on the market briefly in the ‘80s, but shifted its position in response to what some claim was pressure from the artificial sweetener industry.

Though industry representatives have dismissed such claims, it’s easy to understand why they might not look kindly at the competition. As Kate Murphy notes in American Health (May 1997), “It took NutraSweet Kelco, the makers of [aspartame], seven years and millions of dollars’ worth of research to get their product on the market.” Yet, despite all the research, aspartame’s safety record has been less than spotless since its approval in 1981. The artificial sweetener recently emerged as “a promising candidate to explain the recent increase in incidence and degree of malignancy of brain tumors,” according to the Journal of Neuropath-ology & Experimental Neurology (Nov. 1996).

In fairness, no manufacturer has yet furnished adequate evidence of stevia’s safety with long-term use. One reason the FDA isn’t convinced is that a few studies with rats have linked liquid stevia extracts with impaired fertility and heart failure. Stevia’s proponents reliable test model than rats, and most laboratory tests have shown its active compound, stevioside, to be nontoxic. And in sharp contrast with aspartame, there is as yet no indication that stevia is carcinogenic in humans. In an effort to persuade the FDA to lift its two-year embargo on the importation of stevia, the American Herbal Products Association has assembled 900 citations, most of which described stevia’s qualities as a non-caloric sweetener and its lack of harmful effects.

To its credit, the FDA is now considering a petition submitted by the Thomas I. Lipton company to approve stevia leaves as a sweetener in tea. Another company, Royal Sweet International Technologies of Vancouver, may soon secure the use of stevia in Canada, and the company has offered all the toxicological data necessary to convince the FDA that both stevia leaves and extracts are safe. If all goes well with additional testing of this herb, a sweet victory for health-conscious dieters may soon lie ahead.

                    By: Nathaniel Meade

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