The Real Story of Stevia
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim May, the “Father of Stevia.” To earn his title, Jim spent the past 30 years getting stevia to the American table. Jim told his tale of passion and perseverance, one where the little guy wins. Stevia is an no-calorie herbal sweetener that is 300 times as sweet as sugar. It grows wild in Paraguay where it has been used for hundreds of years.
Once upon a time...
Back in the early 1980s, Jim May learned about stevia from Peace Corp workers who had been in Paraguay. Jim saw stevia as something good for the body and good for South American farmers as well. In 1982, Jim began to import high-grade stevia extract that he produced in Paraguay – until the FDA enforced an all out ban.
The FDA said stevia was an “unsafe food additive.” Their concerns were based on several flimsy studies done in South America. No matter that stevia had been safely used as a sweetener in Japan for 25 years, or that scientists could not replicate the results of those studies.
According to Jim May and Vegetarian Times, the FDA’s behavior was “motivated by a trade complaint,” presumably from a food company that would be hurt by the competition. In the early 1980s, a new artificial sweetener, aspartame, had been introduced by GD Searle, a pharmaceutical firm owned by Monsanto. Aspartame had been proven safe by industry-sponsored tests.
In 1994, with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) stevia could be sold as an “Herb and Botanical Extract” - no longer under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Jim could now sell stevia but he couldn't call it "sweet" because that would make it a "food additive" back in the hands of the FDA. But word got out that stevia had a sweet taste.
Knowing that FDA regulations allow independent laboratories to submit safety tests to the scientists who award GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status to food ingredients, Jim hired a group of former FDA scientists to do studies on stevia over the next decade. Simultaneously, the agricultural giant, Cargill, and Whole Earth Sweetener, a subsidiary of the company that makes Equal, were performing safety studies on stevia. They submitting data for rebaudioside-A, a chemically purified extract of stevia, to the FDA and Jim submitted his data as well. In 2008, the FDA accepted reb-A as a food additive. Jim May could then sell stevia as a sweetener and the food giants could sell their brands.
Stevia is available under several names. There is Jim May’s SweetLeaf, Coke and Cargill’s Truvia, Pepsi and Pure Circle’s Pure Via, Sunwin’s Only Sweet, Cumberland Packing Company’s Stevia in the Raw, and others. Jim maintains that his brand is best because he uses purified water and ultra-filtration to extract all of the glycosides (the sweetness agents) from the stevia leaf. He says the big companies use the chemical, erythrinol, to extract only one glycoside, reb-A, from stevia. In discarding the others, stevia's healthfulness declines.
But don’t feel bad for Jim. According to a report by a food and agribusiness financial institution from the Netherlands, sales of stevia-based sweeteners are expected to reach $700 million within the next five years. Jim’s company, Wisdom Natural Brands™, has tripled the size of its headquarters in response to the company's growth. And while the big companies grow stevia on farms in China, Jim still cultivates his in South America. His dream for stevia finally came true.
Have you tried stevia?
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