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The Real Issue in the Stevia Battles

By Jen L. Jones

If you have followed the "Stevia Chronicles" for any length of time, you'll know that controversy dogs this unassuming ancient herb. Stevia banned here ... praised there ... on a consumer alert over there ... yet still sought for around the world.

Just what is the purported danger in using stevia? It's hard to uncover any real evidence for harm.

In his book Stevia Sweet Recipes Jeffrey Goettemoeller has the following to say about stevia's safety:

"Stevia has undergone numerous toxicity tests. None of these tests have shown any harmful effects. Few substances can make this claim. The real test, though, was centuries of continuous use by natives of South America. In addition, thousands of tons of stevia extracts have been consumed over the last 20 years in many countries with no harmful effects reported."

Others have reached similar conclusions. In The Stevia Cookbook, by Ray Sahelian, MD, we read:

"Stevia has been used as a sweetening ingredient in foods and drinks by South American natives for many centuries, and there is no report of any plant toxicity to the consumers (Suttajit, 1993). Stevia has been added to a number of food products in Japan since the mid 1970s. No indications of any significant side effects have yet been reported after more than 20 years of use. Similarly, no reports of any adverse reactions to stevia have been reported in the United States."

In the same book you can read about one of the latest studies of the possible carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effect of stevia in rats. In a 1997 study conducted at the National Institute of Health Sciences in Tokyo, Japan, it was concluded that stevia had no adverse effects on the experimental rats.

Following extensive research, Dr. Daniel Mowrey MD, Herbalist and renowned scientist, reported:

"More elaborate safety tests were performed by the Japanese during their evaluation of Stevia as a possible sweetening agent. Few substances have ever yielded such consistently negative results in toxicity trials as have Stevia. Almost every toxicity test imaginable has been performed on Stevia extract [concentrate] or stevioside at one time or another. The results are always negative. No abnormalities in weight change, food intake, cell or membrane characteristics, enzyme and substrate utilization, or chromosome characteristics. No cancer, no birth defects, no acute and no chronic untoward effects. Nothing."

In the United States, Rob McCaleb, President of the Herb Research Foundation sees the irony in the ongoing FDA stevia (which he calls 'this embattled herb')saga. In a report on the Foundation's website he tells us that stevia has been under FDA import alert since 1991, but "actually, according to the HRF, numerous scientists, and tens of millions of consumers throughout the world, especially in Japan, the herb is safe."

Perhaps it's not the safety of stevia, but its sweetness which is the real sticking point as McCaleb goes on to explain. If stevia has the potential to become a popular non-caloric sweetener, where would that leave some other products currently on the market?

McCaleb says, "That's the problem, apparently, because someone (FDA won't say who, but it's a big company) doesn't want it on the market, and convinced FDA to ban it. Now, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 has forced FDA to allow it in dietary supplements. The agency says it's still illegal to use it as a food ingredient, placing them in the rather stupid position of saying it's safe if labeled as a supplement, but not when sold in or as a food. This would seem to violate the famous "Hee Haw" rule implemented by former FDA Commissioner Frank Young. Dr. Young implored his managers not to place the agency in a position which made it appear foolish by violating obvious common sense. The rule was reportedly prompted by the FDA's case against ginseng capsules years ago. A judge told the Agency that the position that ginseng was safe as a tea but dangerous in a capsule was ridiculous. Now they say stevia is safe in a capsule, but not in a tea, unless the tea is labeled as a dietary supplement. Go figure . . ."

Toxic or just tasty? We think it's time that the evidence on stevia be allowed to speak for itself.

About this article: First published in Stevia Canada's Newsletter, Issue 6.

About this contributor: Jennifer Jones is the editor of Stevia Canada's electronic newsletter (Former editor and publisher of Herbs at Home: Gardens and Good Living, a Canadian magazine). Jones' email is jenjones@alumni.uwaterloo.ca
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