Stevia: What's the Rush?

Statement of CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson


Cargill and Coca-Cola are sticking their thumbs in the Food and Drug Administration's eyes by rushing to market novel sweeteners based on the stevia plant. Cargill has been marketing its Truvia product as a table-top sweetener for several months, and, according to media reports this week, Coca-Cola will start marketing stevia-sweetened drinks. So far, the other main producer, Merisant, and user, PepsiCo, of a stevia-based product have held back. A small company, Wisdom Natural Brands, put SweetLeaf sweetener on the market several months ago.

Stevia and rebaudioside A may well turn out to be entirely safe. But until more tests have been conducted and analyzed, it is reckless for food companies to begin adding it willy-nilly to the food supply and equally reckless for the FDA to stand by mutely.

The FDA should immediately order those products off the market until all the safety testing has been done.

Though small amounts of stevia have been consumed in various dietary supplements over the years, apparently without incident, too few safety tests have been done to warrant more general use. For starters, as two UCLA toxicologists emphasized in a report to the Center for Science in the Public Interest last summer, the FDA normally requires food additives to be tested for two years on rats and mice. The extremely sweet chemical—rebaudioside A—in stevia has only been tested on rats. Also, several, though not all, tests indicate that rebaudioside A causes DNA damage and mutations. That raises the troubling prospect that it could cause cancer.

Remarkably, it is perfectly legal for companies to market whatever food ingredients they want without even informing, let alone getting approval from, the FDA. Wisdom Natural Brands has pointedly said that it did not notify the FDA before marketing Sweetleaf. Last May, both Cargill and Merisant notified the FDA that they considered their products to be "generally recognized as safe," but the FDA has not yet said whether it agrees.

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