How Sweet it Is by Karyn Siegel-Maier, James Gormley, Better Nutrition Magazine
in Texas: a shocking glimpse at politics, the FDA, and stevia
On May 19, 1998, U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors arrived at the offices of a Texas-based Stevia company to "witness destruction" of "offending" cookbooks featuring stevia, and other literature. A videocamera taping the aborted destruction, and the intercession of Julian Whitaker, M.D., prevented a book-burning outrage that day.
What is stevia? With the botanical name, Stevia rebaudiana, it is a small shrub native to portions of northeastern Paraguay and adjacent portions of Brazil.
Stevia has been used by the Guarani Indians, in Paraguay, as a medicinal and sweetener since pre-Columbian times, For more than two decades, stevia has been an approved food additive and widely available in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Japan. In the United States, however, stevia's history is shrouded in political controversy.
`If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out'?
Why is the FDA so offended? In May 1991, the FDA imposed a ban on the import of stevia into the U.S. based on a study conducted at the University of Illinois, in which a genetically altered, synthetic version of stevia extract was allegedly found to cause precancerous changes in a strain of bacteria. Ironically, this was the same year that a follow-up study pointed out flaws in the first study and threw its conclusions into serious doubt.
Nevertheless, the FDA felt it had sufficient evidence to impose the ban. Yet, it was difficult for the FDA to prove that it was not bowing to pressure from the corporate behemoths which produce artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame.
Several U.S. herbal tea companies were using stevia as a "natural flavoring" in their products in the mid-1980s, before the 1991 embargo. According to Rob McCaleb, president and founder of the Herb Research Foundation, Boulder, Colo., the FDA launched an all-out assault on companies then using stevia, attacking with embargoes, search-and-seizure operations, and, ultimately, a ban on all imports, when a complaint was registered in the mid-1980s by a company "with a strong interest in not having sweet natural products on the market."
Since the FDA recognizes a food additive as being GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) if used in food prior to 1958, the U.S. herbal tea companies teamed with the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) to obtain GRAS status for stevia based on its safe use for centuries, worldwide.
In 1992, and again in 1994, AHPA petitioned the FDA and offered more than 900 articles testifying to stevia's safety. The FDA failed to "file" both petitions, an act which would have made the documents accessible to the public. The FDA insisted that filing the petitions would depend on data which demonstrated that stevia has been used "by a significant number of people for a substantial period of time" prior to 1958.
Frustrated by the fact that stevia has a long history of traditional (safe) use in South America and enjoys popularity abroad, the FDA was pressed to define what it considered a "significant number" [of people]. The FDA's Direct Additives Branch chief, Eugene Coleman, responded, "This may sound flippant, but we would know that number when we see it."
In September 1995, the FDA changed its import ban on stevia, saying that it could be imported as a "dietary supplement" but not as a sweetener. But, its use in food products is still restricted and its sweetening quality is still ignored by the FDA, and any labeling, advertising, or promoting stevia as a "sweetener" is strictly taboo.
Stevia is sweet. The FDA's confusion, aside, stevia, when naturally refined, is said to be 100 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, yet does "not affect blood-sugar metabolism," said Stevia rebaudiana: Nature's Sweet Secret, making stevia a good option for diabetics and hypoglycemics.
For non-diabetics, other excellent "sweet alternatives" include minimally processed: organic cane sugar and milled cane sugar.
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