The Food and Drug Administration granted two manufactured brands of stevia a non-objecting level of approval in 2008. However, some brands of the sweetener remain without FDA approval, largely due to the controversial debate over the importing and dangers that it potentially poses.
The stevia plant produces a sweetener scientifically known as rebaudioside A. Some groups claim that the sweetener has a taste nearly 300 times sweeter than normal table sugar. Mass food production industries largely benefit from the use of alternative sweeteners like the one derived from the stevia plant, because such small amounts have the ability to flavor large quantities of foods.
Stevia was once widely used for sweetening the yerba mate tea, treating heart burn and for other medicinal purposes in native Brazilian and Bolivian cultures. Today, most stevia sweeteners flavor soft drink products, candies and snack foods.
The Stevia Debate
During the introduction of the stevia derived sweetener in the late 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sugar alternative, lowering its status down to a food supplement only. The ban took place after the FDA received news of scientific studies regarding rats and part of the stevia plant called the steviol, which actually comes from the stevia leaves.
The studies were later proven false and after intensive research and studies, scientists have proven that the plant does have some link between the reduction of certain disease and health issues. Some of these studies included a decrease in insulin sensitivity, which ultimately helps with the prevention of diabetes and obesity. Other cultures, like the Japanese and some South Americans, have used the plant as a sweetener for decades without any ill effects.
One test during 2006 performed by the World Health Organization showed that the rebaudioside A derived from the stevia plant has no negative effect on health, including an increase in the risk of cancers. The World Health Organization also announced that some information from the tests led the group to believe the sweetener helps reduce blood pressure and even diabetes. However, the group did require more testing to prove definitive health benefit results.
Other Debate Issues
Some individuals claim that the Food and Drug Administration wrongfully banned the substance for political reasons, largely due to the importing issues of the foreign stevia plants. The natural stevia plant requires no patent processing techniques because of its natural state, making it far more able to gain FDA approval, but the group still denied its safety after minimal testing.
Since the ban in 1991, the stevia plant has received much more debate and continues to remain a large question to many consumers across the world. Some foreign countries outside of the United States have removed their approvals and banned the sweetener due to the US ban during the early 1990s. However, the 2006 World Health Organization studies, along with an approval for two stevia brands in 2008, have allowed other brands to gain ground in selling the sugar alternative in stores. As of 2010, several stevia sweeteners remain banned or labeled as safe only when sold as food supplements.