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[whitespace] Sweet Nothing

By Bill Strubbe

SO WHAT'S A SWEET tooth and those with diabetes to do? Well, there's stevia, a natural sweetener derived from a plant (Rebaudiana bertoni), consumed for centuries by indigenous tribes in Paraguay and Brazil. The leaves of the "honey plant," which spreads like mint and grows to about three feet, are 30 times sweeter than sugar.

In its processed powdered form stevia is 300 times more potent.

In the 1980s, stevia was gaining popularity in the United States. Several companies, including Lipton and Celestial Seasonings, employed it as a flavoring agent. But rather than treat stevia as a natural plant with a long history of safe use, the FDA began confiscating commercial stevia stocks.

"They came in like we were holding dangerous contraband," recalls Lynda Sadler, president of Traditional Medicinals in Graton. "They embargoed our finished and raw product. We were right in the middle of tea season, and we suffered the loss of sales and inventory, not to mention warehouse space that took four years to clear out."

Sadler was not alone. "In 1991, FDA marshals unexpectedly arrived at my warehouse and announced they were seizing my inventory of stevia teas," recalls Oscar Rodes, president of Stevita (formerly Steviasweet and forced by the FDA to change the name because it contained the word "sweet").

"Since I did not have time to consult an attorney, they took all my inventory, and when I asked what they would do with the teas, they replied that they were going to burn them."

These extreme actions prompted Sadler and others to form the Stevia Committee of the American Herbal Products Association and to enter petitions with the FDA to prove stevia's safety. "Five years and $500,000 later," adds Sadler, "we could see that no matter what level of science or evidence was presented, it made no difference.

"The FDA was not going to treat stevia fairly."

Despite extensive testing of stevia in Japan in the 1970s with no noted side effects--stevia constitutes almost 50 percent of Japan's artificial sweetener market--and although a dozen other Asian countries have approved stevia, the FDA still refuses to "file" submitted petitions citing more than 900 articles and research chronicling stevia's safe use.

Those in the herbal products market contend that because the stevia plant itself cannot be patented, Nutrasweet, out to protect its aspartame interests in the nearly $1 billion artificial-sweetener industry, secretly pressured FDA officials to harass stevia users and ultimately to ban it. Richard Nelson, the former vice president of public affairs for NutraSweet, dismissed those allegations as "one of those urban myths" in a June 1997 article in Self magazine.

But Nelson's denial is flatly contradicted by Jim May, owner of Wisdom of the Ancients herbal products in Arizona. "In 1984, the FDA [officials] in Phoenix said to me that there's nothing wrong with using stevia as long as they didn't get any complaints," May recalls. "Later, I was called into the office, and the agent apologized and said that the Washington office demanded that we stop using stevia, and he added that it was NutraSweet that tipped them off."

"Stevia has been banned by the FDA simply because it has not been deemed safe," says a spokeswoman at Merisant Co., "and it has nothing to do with NutraSweet."

The FDA was forced through a legal loophole in 1995 to rescind its 1991 import ban against stevia leaves, extracts, and steviosides and allow stevia to be sold as a dietary supplement. Though consumers still won't find stevia on packaged-food labels as a food additive, it's sold among the supplement products in most health food stores, though they're not allowed to mention stevia's most remarkable quality: its sweetness.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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