Zero calorie sweetener gets approval in Australia

Posted by James Ferre on 8th October 2008

After almost a decade of research and 4 years of submissions, CQUniversity’s efforts have paid off with approval of the natural sweetener steviol glycosides (stevia), as an ingredient in foods and beverages in Australia and New Zealand.

The Australian food authority FSANZ has approved the use of the natural sweetener and this will be gazetted tomorrow, October 9.

The stevia plant, renowned for its extraordinary sweetness, is now being considered worldwide as a suitable substitute for sugar. Forms of stevia are currently sold in the United States as dietary supplements and have been used for years by consumers in countries such as Brazil, Japan and South Korea. However, interest in the product has increased dramatically in recent times, with world leading beverage companies Pepsi and Coca-Cola announcing this year they had developed new zero-calorie sweeteners from the plant. Pepsi noted that finding the right products suited to the sweetener was difficult, with citrus products the most compatible.

In Australia, the initial application and submissions were made by CQUniversity’s Centre for Plant & Water Science on behalf of all consumers, users and potential stevia growers.

Professor David Midmore explained the University had made the application because stevia was recognised as a potential new high-value crop for farmers. He has been working on stevia for almost a decade in conjunction with the University’s Honorary Fellow and research officer Andrew Rank.

“Stevia is not a new invention and thus no company holds a patent and would go to the expense of approval just to let other companies cash in on their approval,” Professor Midmore said.

Steviol glycosides – the extract of the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana – are a group of intense sweeteners (250 times sweeter than sugar) which can be used in any food or drink that now contains sugar. Initially it is likely to replace existing chemical sweeteners, especially in ‘diet’ drinks.

Professor Midmore reported the approval process confirmed the complete safety of stevia, as it passed every conceivable test for safety. “CQUniversity believes that it will make an important contribution in low-calorie drinks. For example, one litre of sugar-sweetened soft drink contains at least 1700kJ of energy, whereas when sweetened with stevia the energy content will be as low as 7 kJ,” he said. “We see stevia becoming a significant tool/ingredient for community use in the fight against obesity and the associated metabolic syndrome and diabetes (type II).”

“This ‘calorie free’ sweetener is completely safe for use by all consumers including diabetics as shown in hundreds of trials carried out in many countries,” he added. “The results from these trials were a key factor in the approval by FSANZ. The safety is also confirmed by experience in Japan where it has been used by a population of 90 million people for 35 years without a single adverse effect ever being reported or suspected.”

Professor Midmore believes stevia will be readily accepted by food and drink manufacturers because it is safe, natural and should cost less than sugar.

In Australia, it is expected to be used first in drinks – soft drinks, cordials, milk drinks and juices. It is also expected to be used to make reduced sugar (or diet/low joule) products in ice-creams, yoghurts, breakfast cereals, biscuits, confectionery etc.

Stevia does not taste like white sugar and will be a new taste experience for consumers; it has a characteristic taste somewhere between licorice and treacle, according to the University.

Professor Midmore received strong support from the Rural Industries Research Development Corporation (RIRDC) and Federal Member for Capricornia, Kirsten Livermore, throughout the process.