CBC MARKETPLACE: FOOD » STEVIA
Sugar alternative stirs debate
Broadcast: February 29, 2000 | Producer: Richard Wright;
Research: James Dunne
Agriculture Canada is growing Stevia
Cousin of the chrysanthemum, sibling of the sunflower, it
is called 'stevia' and it is incredibly sweet.
Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It's illegal, at
least when sold in concentrated forms. Some people say that's
bound to change.
Agriculture Canada is growing stevia. "We want to turn it
into a crop, a viable crop for farmers in southwestern Ontario,"
says Jim Brandle, a plant breeding specialist with Agriculture
But approval to use stevia to sweeten your coffee will require
"It's going to take some work on the part of someone more
on the commercial side than on the research side to make sure
that it gets approval as a food additive," says Brandle. "People
have to want to buy it so it's going to take some marketing."
According to Bill Barratt, stevia is "a natural sweetner,
and there's no calories." Barratt runs Royal Sweet, which
has fields of stevia in California, and has a patented process
for refining the sweet essence from the leaves.
Barratt wants to see products sweetened with stevia on every
store shelf in North America. He says its bound to happen:
"This is going to be the sweetener of the millennium, there's
no question in my mind."
Stevia is native to Paraguay. The people of Paraguay and
Brazil have used it for centuries to make a sweet herbal tea.
In recent years, stevia has made its way to the Far East.
It has been embraced in Japan, where it's used in soy sauce,
sweet pickles and soft drinks. In Japan, Diet Coke has been
sweetened with stevia.
Stevia has also taken root in North America, but just barely.
Carolyn Ross of Oakville, Ontario, uses stevia and notes that
only a fraction of stevia will produce the same sweetness
Ross has a sweet tooth, and a family history of diabetes.
Also, for her, stevia comes with a bonus: "I like the fact
that it's a natural product. It's a herb."
But in Canada, so far, stevia can only be sold as a herb.
Strictly speaking, the processed stevia Ross uses is not legal.
Agriculture Canada is betting the farm that will change.
Marketplace asked Barratt what he thinks of the
long-term future of stevia here. Is it something we can expect
to see in tiny packets side-by-side with sugar?
"I hope it will," he says. "because as I said before, the
food additive issue has to be addressed."
The food additive issue he's talking about is this: while
Agriculture Canada may be growing it, Health Canada forbids
stevia's use as a sweetener in foods.
On that, Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Linda Bonvie says they're wrong. She's a New Jersey-based
investigative journalist who's written a book on stevia. On
its cover she asks 'Is the FDA suppressing an ideal herbal
"I think suppression is the perfect word here," she says.
"Starting with the import alert ... keeping it out of the
country is suppression."
Bonvie, who also runs a website on stevia use in North America,
adds that the objections to stevia are unfounded.
brewed a herbal tea with stevia for a while
Once upon a time, stevia could be used in the U.S. Celestial
Seasonings brewed a herbal tea with stevia for a while. Lipton
Tea had the same idea, but couldn't get approval. In 1991
someone complained to the FDA that stevia had not been proven
safe, and all commercial use was put on hold.
In the U.S. today, as in Canada, stevia is sold only in
health food stores. Sugar and artificial sweeteners have the
supermarket shelves to themselves.
Bonvie says she believes that the sweetening industry has
pressured the FDA to keep stevia out of the United States:
"I think there's a lot at stake here ... and when there's
big money at stake, strange things happen."
David Schardt is a nutritionist with the Centre for Science
in the Public Interest, which looks out for consumers and
is often critical of the FDA. But not about stevia.
He says: "we've heard those stories that it was Monsanto
that manufactures aspartame, or Nutrasweet, that blew the
whistle on stevia and got the FDA to ban it as a food additive.
"We don't know whether that's true or not. It's impossible
to say whether that really happened or not, but there are
doubts about the safety of stevia."
Schardt says there are some concerns that have kept stevia
from being approved for use.
"There are questions about the effect on the reproductive
tract in animals," he says. "Questions that it might possibly
be converted into a mutagen and maybe cause cancer."
is convinced stevia is safe
There have already been 900 stevia studies. Nineteen of them
indicated problems according to the Food and Drug Administration.
One study in 1968 determined stevia might cause 'decreased
fertility' in rats.
Schardt says "none of these have been adequately resolved
by good studies." But despite such evidence, Linda Bonvie
is convinced stevia is safe. "I like the fact that it's been
around for centuries, that's a really big selling point in
How can it be that this product has been used for centuries
in South America, for decades in Japan, and these matters
Schardt has an answer: "The Japanese don't consume all that
much of it, and if larger amounts consumed over a long period
of time cause some kind of chronic disease that took a long
time to develop, say cancer, ... would you really notice that
somebody who got cancer may have been consuming stevia some
ten or twenty years earlier? It's debatable."
Bonvie doesn't buy that. "There's been no consumer complaints
or reports of ill effects due to stevia," she says. "Not in
health journals, not in government statistics, and not by
"I was told that Canadian consumers had complained about
stevia and I asked about that. I was told the complaint was,
'Where can I buy stevia?'"
Carolyn Ross can buy stevia in Oakville, but now she wonders
if she should.
"I wonder if we could find out more about stevia," Ross
says. "Is it truly a pure herb and are there long term side
Schardt admits "it may be that with further experiments
and further research we'll find that stevia would really not
be a problem at the amounts that consumers would be consuming."
But he cautions that "right now the record shows stevia
shouldn't be approved yet until there's more reseach."