The Swedish government has supported a stevia project led by Bayn Europe and Barentz based on concerns that non-biodegradable sweeteners may have adverse effects on water supplies.
Lucy Dahlgren, managing director of Bayn Europe, told FoodNavigator the two companies received funding to market stevia dietary fibre blends as a substitute for chemical sweeteners in the Baltic region, as the Swedish governmental organisation Tillväxtverket (Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth) saw water pollution caused by sucralose as a public health priority.
She said they originally applied for the funding on health grounds of sugar reduction; however the company was advised to reapply with the angle of environmentalism.
In a press release, Bayn said: “Chemical sweeteners are not biodegradable and harmful for both the body and the environment.”
However, the sweetener industry has called such statements "erroneous" and "misleading".
Discussing the funding with FoodNavigator, John Wallon, programme manager at Tillväxtverket, said the companies had been chosen for the environmentally driven market introduction project because they had presented an argument that the stevia product is more environmentally friendly than other sweeteners performing the same function.
He said that while the topic of water pollution through sweeteners is relatively unknown for most consumers in Sweden he felt there was an overall concern for the environment there.
Wallon said that to his knowledge Bayn is the only food company out of the 51 companies that received the Baltic grant.
Water supply concerns
Professor Göran Petersson, assistant chemical environmental science professor at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, addressed the issue in an open letter expressing concern about sucralose in 2005. In the letter he suggests that the chlorinated form of sucrose found in artificial sweeteners goes against the grain of environmental organisations’ work on organochlorines - organic compounds containing at least one covalently bonded atom of chlorine. Discussing the funding of this stevia project with FoodNavigator, he said that he saw the persistent chlorinated compound as an even more serious health hazard than back in 2005. However, as to whether the plant-derived stevia sweetener was a better, 'natural' alternative, he said that it was "about as natural as cocaine".
The extent to which we can really call stevia natural has been widely debated, with some pointing to the extraction and purification process using ion exchange chromatography as evidence against this.
Mercyhurst University chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor, Dr Amy Parente, was part of a team of researchers investigating chlorinated sweeteners in US coastal waters. She estimated that 95% of ingested sucralose is not metabolised by the body and is excreted into water.
In 2009 researchers discovered that treatment processes at a sewage plant in Germany failed to completely eliminate the sweeteners sucralose, acesulfame, cyclamate and saccharin.
At the time, the lead researcher Marco Scheurer told FoodNavigator: “Due to the use of artificial sweeteners as food additives, the occurrence of artificial sweetener traces in the aquatic environment might become a primary issue for consumer acceptance.”
However, discussing the speculation with FoodNavigator, UK sucralose manufacturer Tate & Lyle said that it was "erroneous" and "misleading" to set sucralose apart from hundreds if not thousands of compounds present in everyday products that are not readily degraded in the sewage treatment process. He said this included other intense sweeteners like saccharin, cyclamates and acesulfame-K as well as other ingredients found in foods, personal care products, drugs and drug metabolites.
Mathew Wootton, serving as investor and media relations for the group, said: "In the case of sucralose, a wide array of environmental studies confirm that it is not biologically active, does not bioaccumulate and has no adverse impact on plant or animal life." He said it had been the conclusion of every regulatory authority consulted that sucralose poses no risk to the environment.
He said any speculation that suggests otherwise is not supported by the scientific evidence and added that sucralose is inherently biodegradable and is eventually broken down by soil micro organisms to salt, water and carbon dioxide.
Jam, ketchup and chocolate powder
In this project, Bayn and Barentz will prepare to expand the market of stevia and dietary fibres derived from by-products of apple juice and oat-based products in three high sugar demonstration products – jam, ketchup and chocolate powder.
The project will run until December 2014 and aims to establish whether adjustments in taste preferences are required in entering the Baltic market.