Stevia — the sweet plant that challenged the giant companies

How can a single herb threaten a whole industry? There is a substance called steviol glycosides in the stevia plant, three hundred times sweeter than sugar and completely without calories. This unbeatable combination posed a threat to the artificial sweeteners monoply controlled by the food and beverage industry giants in the 80s and 90s. It was David versus Goliath.

28 May 2019 •

In the begin­ning of the 1980s ste­via found itself in the spot­light. Many quick­ly under­stood that its good qual­i­ties would def­i­nite­ly ben­e­fit con­sumers. Just imag­ine, being able to indulge in sweet foods and drinks with­out the guilt.

But the big pro­duc­ers of sug­ar and syn­thet­i­cal­ly man­u­fac­tured sweet­en­ers had oth­er plans.

Their busi­ness was threat­ened by this lit­tle con­tender. Consequently they were not exact­ly help­ful in get­ting ste­via approved by the var­i­ous food safe­ty author­i­ties. Some crit­ics even say that they active­ly worked against the approval.

But the sweet lit­tle plant won – like David against Goliath. This is the sto­ry of how it all happened.

Sweeter than sugar

Stevia Rebaudiana. Photo © Ethel Aardvark (CC BY 3.0)

For more than 1,500 years the natives of Paraguay have used ste­via as a nat­ur­al sweet­en­er. When the leaves are dried they are thir­ty times sweet­er than sugar.

The sub­stances that are respon­si­ble for the sweet­ness are called ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides and can be extract­ed from the plant in about the same way as sug­ar is extract­ed from sug­ar beets. The result is a pow­der that is 300 times sweet­er than sugar.

However, unlike sug­ar, ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides do not con­tribute any calo­ries. So there won’t be any calo­ries turn­ing into fat. And it does­n’t raise the blood sug­ar, or cause tooth decay.

Resistance to stevia

In the ear­ly 1990s stud­ies took place, which spoke against ste­via. Animal test­ing hint­ed at ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides pos­si­bly break­ing down into sub­stances that might be can­cero­genic. Other stud­ies showed it affect­ed the fer­til­i­ty in female rats.

Some of the stud­ies were crit­i­cised for being too small or hav­ing insuf­fi­cient evi­dence to draw con­clu­sions regard­ing side effects in humans. And it was thought that the stud­ies had been com­mis­sioned by the arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ing indus­try. Despite this the stud­ies were fre­quent­ly used as argu­ments against stevia.

The door was firm­ly shut on ste­via in the West. Neither the plant nor ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides were approved for use.

In Japan there was anoth­er take on the sit­u­a­tion. Stevia was approved in the begin­ning of the 1970s and by the 1980s they already had a mar­ket share in excess of 40%.

A new chance for stevia

And then things changed. Patents for sev­er­al sweet­en­ers expired, mak­ing it pos­si­ble for Chinese man­u­fac­tur­ers to com­pete at low­er prices. The mar­ket was flood­ed with cheap products.

For the com­pa­nies whose patents had expired prof­its sank, and so did their inter­est in arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers. Previously unin­ter­est­ed in the plant, they now start­ed to wake up to ste­via. But how could they make use of its sweetness?

Steviol glycosides – ”big business”

You can’t patent a plant that has been known for cen­turies. Anybody can plant, grow and sell it. But, if you can find a hith­er­to unknown sub­stance in the plant you have a pos­si­bil­i­ty to patent it as a solu­tion to a tech­ni­cal problem.

The sub­stance Rebaudioside A (often abbre­vi­at­ed to Reb A) was dis­cov­ered in ste­via. It is one of sev­er­al gly­co­sides which gives ste­via its sweet taste. Coca-cola patent­ed it in 2007, along with 23 oth­er ste­via relat­ed patents.

Suddenly major play­ers like Coca-cola and their part­ner Cargill want­ed ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides approved as an addi­tive. As the com­pa­nies pre­pared to move away from sug­ar, aspar­tame and oth­er sweet­en­ers, in favour of the tough lit­tle con­tender stevia.

In December 2008 the sweet­en­ing agent Reb A was approved as a food addi­tive in the US by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA. France caught on in 2009, and in 2011 it was approved for use in the whole of EU.

A safe choice

In the EU it is today allowed to sell the leaves from the plant as tea, herbal tea or fruit infu­sion. In oth­er cas­es it’s use is sub­ject to EU Food Safety (EFSA) approval for each par­tic­u­lar food category.

Steviol gly­co­sides how­ev­er, are approved as an addi­tive in lim­it­ed amounts and in cer­tain foods.

But what about the risk of can­cer? And dimin­ished fer­til­i­ty? For over fifty years the Japanese have used and enjoyed their ste­via. None of the stud­ies car­ried out since its approval have been able to show ste­via caus­es either of these side effects.

Today ste­via and ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are no longer controversial.

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