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EFSA opinion paves way for EU approval of stevia-based sweeteners

By Elaine Watson , 14-Apr-2010
Last updated on 14-Apr-2010 at 17:34 GMT

EU approval for natural sweeteners from the stevia leaf has moved one step closer after scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gave them a clean bill of health.

EFSA has issued a positive opinion on the safety of steviol glycosides used as food additives following petitions lodged by the European Stevia Association (Eustas), Cargill and Japanese firm Morita, which are all seeking regulatory approval to sweeten products with stevia in Europe.

EFSA’s opinion is in line with that of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the US Food and Drug Administration, approving stevia extracts with at least 95% purity of steviol glycosides.

It will now be passed on to the European Commission, with final EU-wide approval expected next year.

Eustas regulatory affairs boss Carl Horn said it was of “particular significance that EFSA is approving the whole family of steviol glycosides that give the stevia leaf its sweetening power. This will give the food and beverage manufacturers much more freedom when formulating than if they had to only use Rebaudioside A [one of the best-known steviol glycosides].”

Although France is the only EU member state to permit stevia-based sweeteners, with recent launches including Fanta Still from Coca-Cola, food and drink manufacturers elsewhere in the EU were already experimenting with them in a range of products so that they are ready to ‘push the button’ as soon as they gain EU approval, Sarah Marshall at Reading Scientific Services (RSSL) told Foodmanufacture.co.uk.

Companies are already coming to us for advice and support in reformulating products to use Reb-A [Rebaudioside A, a steviol glycoside extracted from stevia leaves].”

As altering formulations of established global brands such as Diet Coke was risky, major customers were typically using Reb-A to launch new products, she said. “It’s always easier to develop a new product with a new sweetener than reformulate an existing one, because people don’t want to mess with major brands. In terms of aftertaste, Reb-A is not the best but also not the worst. It’s not as bitter as ace-K and sucralose, for example.”

To help manufacturers develop new products sweetened with Reb-A, RSSL has also developed a new HPLC method that can be used both on the raw sweetener and for finished products such as soft drinks and confectionery, said Marshall. Other matrices were being worked on, she said. “It is important to know how Reb-A levels are affected by processing and storage.”

Cargill, meanwhile, told Foodmanufacture.co.uk that it was working with several customers in Europe to develop products with Reb-A. Elizabeth Fay, European head of communications for Truvia (Cargill’s brand for Reb-A), said: “Some are already making products for export to markets where Reb-A is authorised and others are developing new products for Europe so that when Reb-A is approved, they are ready to go. It can take 18-24 months for major launches from concept to launch so companies need to start working with Reb-A now.”

She added: “In the US., since its introduction, Cargill’s Truvia tabletop sweetener has achieved a 7.6% market share of the sugar substitute category and Truvia rebiana has been launched in more than a dozen food and beverage products.”

Heat and acid stable

Unlike some other high-intensity sweeteners, Reb-A is light, heat and acid stable, which makes it ideal for acidic juice drinks and pasteurised dairy products. However, firms in the US – where it has been approved since late 2008 – are chiefly embracing it because it is perceived to be more 'natural' than rival sweeteners. Major US launches include upmarket drinks such as Vitamin Water 10 and Odwalla juices by Coca-Cola, and SoBe Lifewater and Tropicana-50 by PepsiCo.

But Reb-A alone is not sufficiently sweet for some carbonated soft drinks, so it sometimes has to be combined with artificial sweeteners to achieve the desired taste. That could thwart its progress in fizzy drinks if firms could not cash in on 'all-natural' claims, according to a recent report from Rabobank. However, there is a growing trend for drinks such as Sprite Green, which gets around this problem by combining Reb-A with sugar. This still enables fizzy drinks to make low (but not zero) calorie claims and retain their all important 'natural' credentials.

This article was originally published by our sister site FoodManufacture.co.uk

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