How to label food containing steviol glycosides

Steviol glycosides must be labelled just like other ingredients. But it is important not to take liberties regarding words and graphics. The EU is clear on how you should label the sweetener steviol glycosides. All to create clarity for the consumer and minimize the risk of being misled.

3 July 2020 •

Steviol gly­co­sides are a rel­a­tive­ly new ingre­di­ent in the EU. For the EU, it is impor­tant that labelling and mar­ket­ing of a new and rel­a­tive­ly unknown ingre­di­ent should not mis­lead con­sumers. What is the back­ground to this and what are you not allowed to say? In this arti­cle, we take a clos­er look at the pit­falls that are easy to fall into when labelling and mar­ket­ing ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. That’s right – ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides, not stevia.

Background

In every­day speech, the term ste­via is often used a lit­tle slop­py, when it is real­ly ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides that peo­ple refer to. But this is not pos­si­ble in a con­sumer con­text. Stevia is a plant that con­tains the sweet sub­stance ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. By extract­ing ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides you get an extract con­tain­ing ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides but also some resid­ual products.

This plays a big role in the EU. Therefore, expres­sions such as ‘ste­via juice’ or ‘ste­via cream’ are not allowed, since it is not the plant or even the extract which is the active sweet­en­er but only the ste­vi­ol glycosides.

Pioneers

Japan was the first coun­try where ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides were com­mer­cial­ly launched. This hap­pened in 1970. In the US it was approved in 2008 and in the EU it was approved as late as 2011.

Novel food

Steviol gly­co­sides is a so-called ‘nov­el food’. What is this now?

It is an EU reg­u­la­tion that cat­e­go­rizes new foods that have not been con­sumed to a sig­nif­i­cant extent before 1997. These may be ingre­di­ents pro­duced using new tech­nol­o­gy and new pro­duc­tion process­es, or tra­di­tion­al foods con­sumed out­side the EU but which have recent­ly seen demand here as well.

These new ingre­di­ents and foods must achieve three principles:

  • Be safe to consume
  • Be cor­rect­ly labelled, to not mis­lead consumers
  • Not to be nutri­tion­al­ly infe­ri­or to the food it might replace

This arti­cle is about the sec­ond prin­ci­ple – on prop­er labelling. To say that a food con­tains ste­via when in fact it only con­tains ste­via extract from ste­via is not cor­rect. Therefore, it is mis­lead­ing to write ‘Sweetened with ste­via’ or the like when it is in fact sweet­ened with ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. Thus, such expres­sions are not allowed with­in the EU.

Stevia sugar

There may be sweet­en­ers which are mix­tures of sug­ars and ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. To call it ‘ste­via sug­ar’ is not accept­able. This may lead the con­sumer to believe that there is a new type of sug­ar that does not con­tain reg­u­lar sug­ar, which is not the case. A more suit­able but more extend­ed label may be ‘Table sweet­en­er based on ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides and sugars’.

Stevia extract

Even terms like ‘Sweetened with ste­via extract’ can be con­sid­ered mis­lead­ing. This is because it is ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides in the extract that con­tribute to the sweet­ness and not the extract as a whole. However, expres­sions like ‘Made from extracts of ste­via’ may be fine.

Natural origin

If you want to use terms such as ‘nat­ur­al ori­gin’ then you should clar­i­fy your impli­ca­tion. For exam­ple, if you write ‘sweet­en­ers of nat­ur­al ori­gin’, then you should explain what nat­ur­al ori­gin means. A short text about ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides being pro­duced from the ste­via plant which is a plant found in nature may suffice.

Extracted or produced

‘Sweeteners from the ste­via plant’ or ‘Steviol gly­co­sides from the ste­via plant’ may be con­sid­ered mis­lead­ing. The con­sumer may believe that the food con­tains the plant ste­via, which it doesn’t. If you want to prove that ‘sweet­en­ers’ or ‘ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides’ come from ste­via, it must be clear that it is extract­ed or pro­duced from stevia.

For the same rea­son, you should be care­ful about using visu­al expres­sions on your packaging.

Image of stevia

If you have an image of a ste­via plant, it should be stat­ed in the text that ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are extract­ed or pro­duced from the plant ste­via. Otherwise, the con­sumer may imag­ine that the pack­ag­ing con­tains the ste­via plant.

A taste of stevia

Claiming that the prod­uct tastes ste­via or sim­i­lar can also be con­sid­ered mis­lead­ing. The excep­tion is tea. But then we’re not talk­ing about ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides as sweet­en­ers but ste­via leaves which can be used in tea.

For several hundred years

In South America, ste­via has been used for hun­dreds of years. But it doesn’t mat­ter in the EU. In the EU, nei­ther the plant ste­via nor the addi­tive ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides have been used for hun­dreds of years. Expressions such as ‘A sweet­en­er for cen­turies’ and the like are there­fore misleading.

Health claims

The World Health Organization (WHO) has ‘sol­id evi­dence’ that the risk of being over­weight and obese is reduced if the intake of added sug­ar reduces to less than ten per cent of the total ener­gy intake. Overweight and obe­si­ty are known risk fac­tors for, among oth­er things, insulin resis­tance, dia­betes, high blood pres­sure, high cho­les­terol, triglyc­erides and oth­er blood fats, and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease. Consequently, sug­ar reduc­tion is good for health. But we must not say that accord­ing to Regulation (EC) No 1924–2006 on nutri­tion and health claims. Not in con­nec­tion with or about a food.

Thus, it is not allowed to say that a food sweet­ened with ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides instead of sug­ar will improve health. You may not even sug­gest such a thing.

Lower blood sugar increase

Exceptions are grant­ed only for cer­tain claims with the exact word­ing stat­ed by the EU. The terms that are approved can be found in the EU’s reg­is­ter of nutri­tion and health claims made on food. For high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­ers, such as ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides, there are only two accept­ed claims:

Consumption of foods/​beverages con­tain­ing instead of sug­ar results in a low­er blood sug­ar increase after con­sump­tion com­pared to foods/​drinks con­tain­ing sugar.

And:

Consumption of foods/​beverages that con­tain instead of sug­ar helps main­tain den­tal mineralization.

It is per­mis­si­ble to change the word­ing if the impli­ca­tions to the con­sumer are exact­ly the same as the approved health claim. However, there is lit­tle room to make big changes. Before chang­ing the word­ing, read a rec­om­men­da­tion pre­pared by the EU Member States.

If you make a health claim, like the two above, you must also add the following:

  • Nutrition state­ment.
  • A state­ment about the impor­tance of a ver­sa­tile and bal­anced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
  • The amount of food and the con­sump­tion pat­tern need­ed to achieve the alleged­ly ben­e­fi­cial effect.
  • Where applic­a­ble, a warn­ing to per­sons who should avoid using the product.
  • A suit­able warn­ing regard­ing prod­ucts that, if exces­sive con­sump­tion, can pose a health risk.

If you use a health claim allowed by the EU, with a word­ing with exact­ly the same mean­ing as the one approved by the EU and add the five things above, then you are actu­al­ly allowed to also present a more gen­er­al descrip­tion of the health effect of a prod­uct. However, the con­nec­tion between the gen­er­al descrip­tion and the approved state­ment must be clear to consumers.

Case by case

Small details can deter­mine whether a labelling is approved or not. But it is impor­tant to remem­ber that it is always the indi­vid­ual case and the entire­ty that is assessed. The key is that the labelling must in no way be misleading.

Help!

You are read­ing this prob­a­bly because you want to reduce added sug­ar in your company’s prod­ucts to pro­mote the health of con­sumers and use ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides to avoid arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers. Then, of course, you want to tell all this to your con­sumers. But as you under­stand, it is not easy to do so while stay­ing on the nar­row path. Therefore, do not con­sid­er this arti­cle as a guar­an­tee for what you can and can’t do.

We strong­ly rec­om­mend that you con­tact some­one who can advise you. We are hap­py to do that. It is part of our range of ser­vices. Contact us for more information.

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