One sweetener’s loss is another sweetener’s gain. Stevia extract was first sold in Europe at the turn of the millennium, a time when aspartame, the undisputed leader among sweeteners since the 1960s, was being undermined by claims that it was carcinogenic. On the other hand, steviol glycoside (aka stevioside or rebaudioside A) was praised as a perfectly natural product. It is extracted from Stevia ribaudiana, a plant found in Paraguayan and Brazilian forests. The indigenous populations of these regions have always used this plant to sweeten their maté infusions. Compared to white sugar, stevia extract sweetens 300 times more, plus it’s calorie free.1 In just three years, between 2009 and 2012, the supposed miraculous properties of stevia increased its share of the sweeteners market to 36%.2
However, some experts in the field of health risks claim that this substance is not entirely risk-free. Marie-Louise Scippo, a professor who researches food-related chemical risks at the Université de Liège, explains, “What we call a natural sweetener comes from highly concentrated plant extracts.” In 2008, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), composed of members of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), assessed the toxicity of steviol glycoside. As a result, the WHO recommends limiting the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of steviol glycoside to 4 mg/kg of body weight.3 This safety measure is currently applied throughout Europe and the United States.
As Zoie Jones, Communications Officer at the FAO explains, “This joint committee was established to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food.” She goes on to say, “The Codex Alimentarius or ‘Food Code’ is a collection of standards, guidelines and codes of practice adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. […] Codex texts are non-binding recommendations that only become mandatory if and when they are accepted into national legislation.”
Loïc Briand, a researcher at the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour (CSGA) in Dijon points out that “Some time ago, we discovered that the sweet taste receptor causes a reaction not only on the tongue, but also in the intestines, the pancreas and adipose tissue. This raises even more questions about how sweeteners may affect our health and the risks associated with their use.”
Today, only the highly purified plant extract is authorised. The sale of fresh or dried stevia leaves is banned in Europe and the United States.4 China is the world’s biggest producer of stevia, and the plant is widely used there to combat high blood pressure. One of the good things about this plant is that it grows easily, as long as it has a little water. PureCircle, the Malaysian manufacturer and current market leader, sources the plant from some twenty countries across five continents.5