Stevia: The 'Holy Grail' of Sweeteners?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon decide the future of what some in the food industry are calling the holy grail of sweeteners, a low-calorie, natural substance derived from the South American stevia plant. The particular strain of stevia being considered for approval is called Rebaudioside A.

Stevia has been used in Paraguay for centuries and in Japan for decades. It is currently available in the United States mostly in specialty stores and only as a nutritional supplement. Nutritional supplements are regulated less rigorously than other food and drug substances.

What the FDA must decide is whether Rebaudioside A is safe enough to be used as an additive in processed foods, where consumers may not realize it is there. If approved, it would likely be used in massive quantities of processed foods and drinks.

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The sweetener is considered "natural," but that has not silenced some voices of concern.

"Just because it's natural doesn't mean that it's safe," Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told "Good Morning America." "That's why tests should be done."

According to Jacobson, stevia may be linked to genetic mutations in lab animals, which could possibly lead to cancer.

"The risk to a given individual is minuscule. Invisible. But when you multiply that very, very tiny risk by 50 million people, 100 million people, that's a very significant risk," he said.

But Cargill, which makes a stevia-based sweetener called Truevia, and Merisant, which makes another named Pure Via, both said their products are safe and are applying for FDA approval. True Via and Pure Via are both Rebaudioside A-based.

Recently, international scientists associated with the World Health Organization agreed that these newer forms of stevia sweeteners are safe.

According to industry analyst Mike Richardson of the Freedonia Group, gaining FDA approval is only half the battle for stevia supporters.

"It's sort of a two-stage thing for these products to be successful -- getting FDA approval and then getting consumer approval," he said.

Early Stevia sweeteners had a licorice aftertaste that many consumers did not like. Richardson said the Rebaudioside A versions are as close to sugar as anything ever created.

Coke and Pepsi are both waiting in the wings, ready to release stevia-sweetened versions of their products if the FDA gives its approval.

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