Stevia, a new all-natural sweetener, is regarded by the soft drinks industry as one of the most significant developments in sweeteners in recent years. Annette Farr finds out what the fuss is about.

There is a new high-intensity sweetener on the block stirring up considerable excitement amongst the heavyweight cola giants. Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are investing in stevia because of its all-natural and zero-calorie properties. The sweetener would appear to tick all the right boxes when it comes to health, wellness and obesity issues as well as satisfying the growing number of consumers who prefer the taste of their drinks sweetened naturally and the use of all-natural ingredients.

Stevia rebaudiana is a herb belonging to the chrysanthemum family which grows wild as a small shrub in parts of Paraguay and Brazil. It was first discovered by the Guarani natives of Paraguay who used the plant's leaves to sweeten drinks. The leaves contain ten different steviol glycosides, considered to be high-intensity sweeteners (250-300 times sweeter than sucrose), and have been used for several years in a number of countries as a sweetener for a range of food products.

In particular, Japan has used stevia as its main non-sucrose sweetener source for more than 30 years. Other countries which allow the use of steviol glycosides include China, Russia, Korea, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Indonesia and Israel.  Most recently, in August this year, approval for the use steviol glycosides in foods was granted by the Australian and New Zealand food standards authority.      

Significantly, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), an international expert scientific committee that is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, has concluded that stevia extracts containing 95% steviol glycosides are safe for human use in the range of 4mg per kg of body weight per day.

However, in North America steviol glycosides do not have Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) status and are therefore not currently permitted to be added to foods, although they are sold as a dietary supplement. In Europe, a submission has been made to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for regulatory approval to use stevia in food and drink products.

Seattle-based soda company Zevia has already taken the plunge and launched a carbonated stevia 'supplement' in three flavours: Zevia Natural Cola, Natural Orange and Natural Twist. The extract from the stevia leaf contains less than one calorie, has no effect on blood sugar levels and, says the company, offers up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar.
 
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have taken a proactive step in the stevia story by developing, in partnership with suppliers, their own stevia-sourced branded natural sweeteners.  
  
In May, Coca-Cola announced that it had established a partnership with Cargill to transform stevia into a natural way to sweeten beverages. The result is Rebiana, described as a "great-tasting, natural, zero-calorie sweetener that consists of the best-tasting parts of the stevia plant". Together the companies plan to offer Rebiana to sweeten a variety of foods and beverages and to market it under the brand name Truvia.

PepsiCo followed two months later, reporting that it had joined with the Whole Earth Sweetener Company to introduce PureVia, featuring high-purity Reb-A which is also derived from stevia. The sweetener is being used initially in three SoBe Life flavour blends, Tropical Pomegranate, Strawberry Kiwi and Orange Tangerine, which are to be launched in certain South American markets.

Magomet Malsagov, managing director of PureCircle, supplier of Reb-A, says he looks forward to further developments in this "exciting market which we believe will herald a new era in natural sweetening and engender higher expectations on product taste and delivery among consumers".

But before either major cola company can incorporate its stevia-based sweetener brand into beverages in the US, stevia has to be GRAS approved by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Currently the US's largest supplier of stevia, Wisdom Natural Foods, has self-affirmed its version of stevia - Sweet Leaf - as GRAS, saying the ingredient will be available in a soda or food product by the end of the year. FDA regulations allow companies independently to determine through a self-affirmation process that an ingredient is generally recognised as safe by qualified experts. Wisdom is confident that it has satisfied this standard through the work conducted by the consulting firm, GRAS Associates.
 
Coca-Cola and Cargill have also published scientific research backing Truvia and observers believe that, given the evidence surrounding the ingredient's safety, it is going to be increasingly difficult for FDA to refuse approval.
 
But there are detractors. A citizen's petition issued through the law firm Coburn & Coffman PLLC in Washington DC alleges that stevia has therapeutic benefits and is therefore a drug and thus cannot be legally added to conventional foods. 

However, progress towards FDA and EFSA approval is reported to be gathering pace. And all eyes are on Coca-Cola as the soft drinks industry waits for the global market leader to launch its first stevia-sweetened drink.