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No calories, sweet and all natural: is stevia too good to be true?

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Reb A is the prized sweetener that is derived from stevia leaves. (Photo courtesy of PureCircle)

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Now only available at select venues in New York City and Chicago, stevia-sweetened Sprite Green will have a broader rollout later this year. (Photo courtesy of Coca-Cola)

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Stevia plants ready to be harvested. (Photo courtesy of PureCircle)

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Pepsi's SoBe lifewater is the company's first stevia-sweetened beverage to be sold in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Pepsi)

Sprite Green is the latest addition to the world of Coca-Cola products, and its name refers not just to the color of the can or the beverage. This diet soda is green in a deeper sense, deriving its sweetness not from artificial saccharin or aspartame, but from a natural, zero-calorie sugar substitute that many experts believe is primed to take supermarket shelves by storm. It is called stevia, and since the Food and Drug Administration gave it its official blessing in December, some in the beverage industry have been hailing it as the Holy Grail of sweeteners.

“This could be huge,” said Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association, an advocacy and lobbying group. “Stevia is the only non-calorie, natural sweetener that has been approved as a food additive, which means that it can now be used in all conventional food products.”

That could mean a much-needed boost for Coke and Pepsi, whose cola sales have been slumping. With obesity skyrocketing and a natural lifestyle more fashionable than ever, many consumers have shied away from sugary drinks in favor of more healthful refreshment. In response, the beverage giants have devoted more attention to their water and juice lines. But soda is still their flagship product, and using a sugar substitute that comes from a leaf and not from a lab—as do saccharin and aspartame—could be the key to revitalizing sales.

Along with its natural origins and null calorie count, stevia also has less of an aftertaste than its artificial counterparts, according to its fans. All together, that’s enough to make beverage executives excited, even as health concerns linger.

While stevia was given only GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status by the FDA in late December, Coca-Cola and Pepsi haven’t wasted any time. Coke is already using the sugar substitute (under the name Truvia) in two flavors of its Odwalla juice line and four flavors of Vitamin Water, along with Sprite Green. Pepsi has introduced stevia (under the name PureVia) to its SoBe drinks and is soon to release a stevia-sweetened, reduced-calorie orange juice called Trop50. More stevia beverages are soon to follow. Food companies have also expressed interest, considering the sweetener for use in everything from oatmeal to gravy to gum.

Native to South America, the stevia plant is a bush that can grow from 9 inches to 4 feet tall. Its leaves contain high concentrations of Rebaudioside A, also known as Rebiana or Reb A. Its intense sweetness (300 to 450 times that of sugar) and clean flavor have made it a popular sugar substitute for nearly four decades in Japan, and even longer in South America.

But the United States has been more hesitant to give stevia the go-ahead, in part because studies have shown it to have negative health effects when consumed in large quantities. Until the FDA’s recent change, stevia was allowed to be sold only as a dietary supplement, meaning that it could not be labeled as a sweetener or added to food products. Relegated to health food stores, it remained unknown to most consumers.

“Before, it was a very fragmented effort to get stevia approved,” said Sidd Purkayastha, a food scientist for PureCircle, the world’s largest stevia producer. “But in the past few years, it has been a concerted effort, as consumers and companies these days are going for natural products more and more, and some of the major companies started pushing for stevia to get through the FDA. They made sure that the FDA had all the safety information they needed to approve this.”

Government approval could not have come as better news for PureCircle, which supplies both Coca-Cola and Pepsi with stevia extracts. The company currently has stevia plantations in China, Kenya and Paraguay, and is planning to open a new one in Vietnam.

PureCircle produces 1,000 metric tons of the sweet extract annually, and is looking to boost its output to as much as four times that amount within the next few years. That commitment represents a mammoth agricultural undertaking because only 4 percent of each stevia leaf contains the Reb A that can be sold as a sweetener. The planting and harvesting provide many jobs for local farmers, Purkayastha noted, and there has even been exploration of stevia’s potential to make inroads into South America’s illicit marijuana-growing industry.

But some worry that a boom in stevia consumption may be hasty. Two days before the FDA announced its approval of stevia, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group, cited lab tests in which stevia had been found to cause genetic mutations in rats.

“Stevia and rebaudioside A may well turn out to be entirely safe,” a statement from the group said, “but until more tests have been conducted and analyzed, it is reckless for food companies to begin adding it willy-nilly to the food supply and equally reckless for the FDA to stand by mutely.” The organization went on to suggest that Coca-Cola had improperly influenced the FDA’s decision to approve stevia.

PureCircle insists that there is no reason for concern. “There is enough literature and enough clinical studies have been done to show that there is no harmful effect,” said Sidd Purkayastha, a food scientist at the company. Fabricant, of the Natural Products Association, agreed. He pointed out that the majority of research on stevia’s safety was funded by the government, not Coca-Cola.

Ray Sahelian, co-author of “The Stevia Cookbook,” also considers the sweetener safe. He says he has used it in his tea every day for more than a decade without any health problems. He is puzzled, however, by the timing of the FDA’s approval. “When natural foods companies petitioned the FDA to allow stevia to be called a sweetener, they were denied,” Sahelian recalled. “But somehow, when Coke and Pepsi petitioned the FDA, then it was okay for stevia to be called a sweetener.”

Nevertheless, he said that the decision may have a profound effect on the entire food and beverage industry: “I attended a natural products expo this month, and based on what I saw—on the number of companies that are working with stevia, the companies that are likely to put stevia in their nutrition bars, smoothies, drink and food—this will be huge.” He added that stevia should also be popular among diabetics, who will be especially eager to replace artificial sweeteners with a natural alternative.

Whether stevia becomes the manufacturer’s Holy Grail depends on the public’s response—whether consumers see it as a Holy Grail. “People will choose stevia for the same reason they are driving hybrids,” said Fabricant. “Folks really want to get away from some of the synthetics. They feel like they’ve been burned by those products and they don’t necessarily know why, but if you have a natural product versus a synthetic product, I think today’s consumer is going to pick a natural one the majority of the time.”

Especially if it’s calorie-free.

E-mail: rbs2130@columbia.edu