Stevia: A "Natural" Sweetener?

While plant-based sweetener Stevia holds great potential as a sugar substitute, its public reception hasn't been completely sweet.

Not only is there the problem of offsetting its bitter, often licorice-like aftertaste, now there is debate over whether stevia compounds used as sweeteners in food and drinks should be allowed to be marketed as "natural."

In order to make steviol glycosides, the compounds responsible for the sweet taste of products are extracted from the stevia leaf in water and purified using ion exchange chromatography, then recrystallized to give the final product we know as stevia.

As a result, some EU Member States argue that these extracts cannot be labeled as natural as they do not exist in a natural state without undergoing this process.

According to Anne-Laure Robin, Leatherhead Food Research international regulatory manager, the debate stems from the lack of an EU-wide legislation imposing a strict definition of the term "natural."

"We have received quite a few enquiries related to stevia's 'natural' claim," said Anne- Robin, "The term 'natural' is not really addressed fully for the industry in Europe. It is seen more as a marketing tool than as an issue for additive regulations."

EU food industry trade group Food DrinkEurope has begun advising food and drink processors to use the term "from a natural source," though as many as nine different versions of the phrase may be under discussion, including both "sweetness from a natural source" and "steviol glycosides are present in the leaves of the Stevia plant."