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Stevia-based high intensity sweetener given clearance by FSANZ

Published: 12 Aug 2008

By Joe Lederman and Charles Fisher
FoodLegal Lawyers and Consultants
© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, August 2008

A recent decision by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (‘FSANZ’) to amend the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code to permit the use of steviol glycosides as food additives is going to cause quite a stir in the Australian sweeteners market.

On 6 August 2008, FSANZ released its Final Assessment Report for Application A540 – Steviol Glycosides as Intense Sweeteners. Application A540 was made on 31 May 2004 by the Plant Sciences Group, Central Queensland University and Australian Stevia Mills Pty Ltd. It was not the first application to FSANZ to use extracts from the Stevia plant in certain foods. For example, in August 1999 there had been an application to FSANZ to use Stevia herbal extract as an additive in general consumer foods and in October 2001 for Stevia as a novel food. However, FSANZ requested more data from the applicants in each instance and each decided to withdraw their application.

However, the current successful application was prompted by the development of manufacturing methods to create intense natural sweeteners out of steviol glycosides instead of more tradition methods of consumption such as herbal extracts. The revolutionary nature of such sweeteners derived from Stevia is that they are more natural than certain artificial sweeteners, have few calories and are said to be sweeter than sucrose (up to 250-300 times sweeter). This means that they can be used as a substitute for sugar and greatly reduce the energy content of foods.

Such characteristics have already prompted companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi to have already developed table-top sweeteners and drink ranges while waiting for similar applications to pass in the United States (see for example the recent article in the online news service, Australian Food News, ‘Stevia: The new battleground for Coke and Pepsi’).

It took Food Standards Australia New Zealand (‘FSANZ’) until May 2007 to release a Draft Assessment Report on the application. The progress of the application was further delayed until the data from a study into potential adverse affects of Stevia could be incorporated into the FSANZ decision-making assessment. This is despite Stevia itself having a history of use in Japan (30 years in a country where artificial chemical sweeteners are not generally approved), China, Russia, Brazil and its native Paraguay (hundreds of years).

The Japanese consumption of Stevia has resulted in a strong Stevia industry of the main exporter, China. So much so that prior to FSANZ’ decision on Application A540, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation was already exploring the potential for an Australian Stevia industry.

In making its decision, FSANZ was faced with three options. It ruled out the first option of not amending the Food Standards Code which would have continued to prevent Steviol Glycosides coming onto the Australian market. This was due to the claimed health benefits to a nation suffering from obesity and diabetes that such a product might help alleviate. However, there remained the decision as to what extent FSANZ would permit the use of steviol glycosides in food. By amending Schedule 1 to Standard 1.3.1, FSANZ would only be permitting the use of steviol glycosides in certain food products in certain quantities. Alternatively, if FSANZ had wished, it could have amended Schedule 2 of Standard 1.3.2, to permit the use of steviol glycosides in a very wide range of foods.

FSANZ has decided to adopt a cautious option and to limit the use of steviol glycosides to certain foods. Furthermore, it has adopted an Acceptable Daily Intake level for steviol glycosides. This daily intake level is to protect consumers from potential adverse health effects. However, the Final Assessment Report does not mention what these adverse health effects might be and goes so far as to say that steviol glycosides will be of great help to people suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Not only that, the Final Assessment report specifically stated that in one of the scenarios used to determine the Acceptable Daily Intake (where all sugar in a diet was completely replaced with steviol glycosides) such a consumption level was considered to be ‘unlikely’ and that the scenario’s estimates were ‘based on very conservative assumptions’.

In any event, steviol glycosides have been approved as a tabletop sweetener, which creates the possibility of a new agricultural industry for Australia, the certainty of a new competitive market and the choice for consumers to add steviol glycosides to any food they choose. Furthermore, the scope for further amendment of Standard 1.3.1 allows for other avenues to introduce steviol glycosides into foods which are not regulated by the current amendments.

For regulatory compliance advice on the compositional acceptance or marketing approaches for any foods or food ingredients or additives, please do not hesitate to contact FoodLegal.