Bitter dispute over an all-natural sweetener

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mina Brustman is a health-conscious cook with a sweet tooth. She loves the taste of sugar, but she could do without the calories.

She's tried, of course, the usual sugar substitutes, but she remains leery about their chemical makeup. So what's Ms. Brustman to do?

Ten years ago, she heard about stevia, an all-natural, noncaloric sweetener used throughout Latin America and Asia. It comes from a plant originally grown in Paraguay. When the leaf is processed, it produces a powder that is as much as 300 times as sweet as sugar. Brustman immediately found a supplier and started whipping up rich creams and cakes.

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"I cook for a lot of people that can't eat sugar," says the South Carolina resident.

In the past four years, stevia has taken off in the US. In 1994, there was only one supplier in Texas. Now there are more than 50, accounting for some $10 million of sales.

There's only one problem: Stevia is illegal as a food additive. In 1991, the Food and Drug Administration banned the importation of stevia and its use use in foods, saying it had questions about its safety. In 1995, the agency relented somewhat. The FDA lifted the import embargo and allowed the herb into the US, but only as a "dietary supplement."

Even so, the move infuriated many in the health-foods industry and heightened their already-tense relations with the FDA. It also strengthened their belief that the government watchdog agency is in the pocket of the powerful lobby of the chemical sweetener industry.

"They say it's safe as long as you use it as a dietary supplement, but if you try to use it as a food it's unsafe?" says James Kirkland, author of The Stevia Cookbook. "The battle goes back to influence on the FDA from the artificial sweetener industry."

Protecting the food chain

The FDA adamantly denies such assertions. Officials contend they're simply trying to protect the American food chain from a product that is unproven and potentially risky. In the original 1991 order banning the import of stevia, the FDA pointed to some studies raising questions about the herb's impact on blood sugar levels and fertility.

"The tests weren't very good; it was hard to tell what was even tested," acknowledges Dr. George Pauli, director of the FDA's division of product policy. "But there weren't any good ones either. It was really the lack of studies that raised alarms."

The health-food lobby contends the studies the FDA relied on were old and flawed. Supporters brought to its attention more than 180 studies done in England, Japan, and Brazil which found the herb to be safe.

But the FDA needed more evidence. For a sweetener to be approved in the US, it requires a series of long-term tests on rodents and other large animals. "We felt that since consumption would be pretty high that the testing just hadn't been done," says Pauli.

But in 1994, Congress passed a law known as the dietary supplement act. That essentially says that if the FDA wants to ban a supplement, it must prove that it's unsafe. Thus, stevia's position is an oxymoron - deemed safe as a nutritional supplement, but not as a food additive.

As stevia's use continues to grow, so has criticism of the FDA and some of its tactics. Last year, it started detaining shipments going to a company called Stevita in Arlington, Texas, and ordered them to stop selling their product, even though it was properly labeled a food supplement. The company's crime? It was selling Mr. Kirkland's stevia cookbook, which told consumers how to use stevia as a sweetener.

Marshals arrived at Stevita's offices. According to the letter from the FDA's regional office, they were there to "witness destruction of the cookbooks ... and other publications for the purpose of verifying compliance."

"I'm not going to burn books, no way. It really upset me tremendously," says Oscar Rodes, the president of Stevita. "I gave a VCR to my secretary and said, 'If I have to burn books, everything will be on tape.' "

Battling the ban

Mr. Rodes's daughter then called in the local media. That gave the investigators pause. They marked six books so they couldn't be sold then relented and left. Rodes's attorney raised First Amendment issues. A month and a half later, the FDA released the shipments and allowed Stevita to continue distributing its literature, except the cookbooks.

Such actions have fueled both resentment against the FDA and the rumor that the artificial sweetener industry is pressuring the FDA to keep stevia out of the market. In particular, Mary Stoddard, founder of the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, points to Monsanto, the makers of aspartame, more commonly known as Nutrasweet. In the mid-1980s, the company bought a patent on a process to make stevia "table top" ready.

"Monsanto wields a lot of power in this country that's not immediately apparent to the outside," says Ms. Stoddard.

But Monsanto officials deny they are working to keep stevia off the market. "Food additives are a very, very regulated market. The barriers are significant. They're not from Monsanto, it's just the way the FDA works," says Etienne Veber, of Monsanto's Nutrasweet division. "It's very difficult for small entrepreneurs."

Burdensome testing

Rodes definitely agrees with that. He says he doesn't have the money to do the kind of testing the FDA requires. But he believes that stevia should fall into the FDA's category called GRAS, meaning "generally regarded as safe." That applies to all foods that were commonly used in this country before 1958. Since stevia was commonly used throughout Brazil and Paraguay for many centuries, and has been a leading sweetener in Japan and much of Asia for the past 25 years to no ill effect, he believes the FDA should give it a GRAS designation as it has with other foreign products.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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