If you’re well-informed in the subjects of nutrition and health, you may have heard of stevia. You may have heard that it is a naturally occurring sweetener–that it is, in fact, an herb related to the sunflower, native to Paraguay, and grows in tropical and subtropical areas in parts of North and South America.
You may also have heard that the Japanese have been using it to sweeten their food on a large commercial scale since the 1960s, a time during which many synthetic sweeteners were gaining ground, but falling under scrutiny.
Why, if the Japanese have copped on to this (as some purport) “miracle sweetener”–claimed to stabilize blood sugar, nourish the pancreas, soften the skin, clear blemishes, fight bacteria in the mouth, etc.-what-have-you–has the rest of the world been so slow to follow? We weren’t. In the United States, stevia had been making headway in a food market utterly dominated by cane sugar.
In 1985, chemical and bio-tech giant Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle & Company, the developers and owners of aspartame. The NutraSweet Company (NutraSweet is a synthetic chemical sweetener, containing aspartame) became a separate subsidiary. Monsanto maintained its ownership of NutraSweet until 1999, and then sold it.
During that time, stevia suffered a tremendous blow.
In 1991, the United States Food and Drug Administration received an anonymous industry complaint about the safety of stevia as a food additive (although a landslide of Japanese studies demonstrating its safety could be referenced) and quickly restricted the import of stevia. Given that stevia was a naturally occurring herb, under the FDA’s own guidelines, it should have been considered GRAS (generally regarded as safe), as so many untested entities are in the American market.
By 1995 the FDA, pressured by the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, changed its stance on stevia and allowed its import as a “dietary supplement,” not as a food additive.
Many critics blame industry pressure for the unfair discrimination against stevia, though few overtly point the finger at initial sources of pressure.
I’ll happily point it (speculatively).
And here’s why: ‘Michael R. Taylor was an assistant to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner before he left to work for a law firm on gaining FDA approval of Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone (BST) in the 1980s. Taylor then became deputy commissioner of the FDA from 1991 to 1994.‘ (-Wikipedia, “Monsanto”) Taylor was later re-appointed to the FDA in August 2009 by President Barack Obama; and that really can’t be good.
In other words. Taylor was appointed to the FDA in 1991. In that same year, an anonymous complaint was logged against stevia as unsafe, and stevia was banned. Taylor leaves the FDA in 1994. In 1995, stevia makes a comeback, albeit, only as a dietary supplement.
If you’re not convinced, keep in mind that in order to protect the party responsible for logging the complaint against stevia, the FDA deleted names in the original complaint in its responses to requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. Could it have been NutraSweet, Monsanto’s subsidiary? Maybe. But that would make Taylor look pretty bad.
If you still not convinced of the power of industry pressure, consider this: ‘In December 2008, the FDA gave a “no objection” approval for GRAS status to Truvia (developed by Cargill and The CocaCola Company) and PureVia (developed by PepsiCo and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company, a subsidiary of Merisant, [affiliated with Monsanto]), both of which use rebaudioside A derived from the stevia plant.’ (-Wikipedia, “Stevia”)
New question: why does stevia get such a bad rep? Receive so much pressure?
Stevia is a naturally occurring herb. It cannot be patented. With some extracts being as much as 300 times sweeter than sucrose, it has the power to bankrupt the trade of Big Sugar and synthetic sweeteners. Stevia did not begin to receive any protection until large companies found ways to develop products containing patentable stevia derivatives.