As stevia did not have a substantial history of consumption in the EU prior to 1997 it was disallowed under novel foods regulations, as of 2000. Prior to that, the plant had garnered considerable consumer and media interest, partly for its sweetening capabilities and partly for its low impact on the glycaemic index, which is of interest to diabetics.
The ban was enforced vigorously in 2000, according to Peter Grosser of MedHerbs, who is also responsible for regulatory affairs at the European Stevia Association (EUSTAS), with companies reporting police raids and seizures of their material.
But Grosser shared EUSTAS website statistics with delegates as the stevia symposium in Leuven, Belgium last week. The site attracts some 2500 visitors each month, from 88 countries – but 38 per cent of visitors are located in German-speaking countries (Germany and Austria).
He said that prohibition has done little to dent consumer confidence, and about ten tonnes of died leaves and six tonnes of steviol glycosides are imported each year. These are used in products that can be consumed, but which are not explicitly labelled as food.
The trouble is that since no food checks take place in these fringe products, some problems can occur, “such as additives not being declared and specifications being incorrect”.
Wanted: safe stevia
Grosser said that in 2007 German speakers were asked about their future expectations regarding stevia.
Forty per cent of respondents said they wanted high quality, safe stevia; 28 per cent said they wanted it to taste like sugar; 17 per cent were diabetics.
Fifteen percent said they wanted stevia to be approved.
Regulatory approval sought
MedHerbs has filed for novel foods approval for the leaves of the stevia plant, and EUSTAS and others have petitioned the European Food Safety Authority for an opinion on steviol glycosides, crucial for EU approval to be granted.
If MedHerbs’ application is approved, it will apply only to that company’s products in the EU. Others would have to go through a simplified procedure, requiring only notification to a national food assessment body that they are substantially equivalent in terms of composition, nutritional value, metabolism, intended use and level of undesirable substances.
In Switzerland, which borders Germany and Austria, steviol glycosides at 95 per cent purity were approved last year, following the JECFA positive safety view (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives). Industry insiders have said this was an unusual move for Switzerland, which tends to grant approval for ingredients only in the wake of EFSA opinions.
Every product containing steviol glycosides must seek individual approval before being launched on the market, however.