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Europe debates stevia’s ‘natural’ claims

By Rod Addy, 29-May-2012

Related topics: Carbohydrates and fibres (sugar, starches), Chocolate and confectionery ingredients, Sweeteners (intense, bulk, polyols), Legislation, Natural and clean label, Stevia

Discussion continues over whether stevia compounds in food and drink products can be labelled as ‘natural’, with the weight of opinion favouring ‘from a natural source’ as a descriptor.

Steviol glycosides, the compounds responsible for the sweet taste of the stevia leaf that are used to sweeten products, are extracted in water and purified using ion exchange chromatography. The extracts are then recrystallised from methanol or ethanol, resulting in a final product consisting mainly of stevioside and/or rebaudioside A. As a result, some individual EU Member States are arguing that these extracts cannot be labelled as natural, because they do not exist in a natural state without undergoing this process.

The definition revolves around marketing guidelines for separate EU countries. That’s because there is no legislation imposing a strict definition of the term natural in EU additive regulations Annie-Laure Robin, Leatherhead Food Research international regulatory manager, explained to FoodNavigator.

Instead, Member States tend to take their cue on such issues from EU flavouring legislation, which contains definitions of natural and artificial flavours, she said.

From a plant source

“You can’t strictly say steviol glycosides are natural, because they are extracted from stevia,” said Robin. “People all over Europe are saying you can’t say the additive is natural, but you can say it’s from a plant source. Manufacturers are adopting that now as a way forward.”

EU food industry trade group FoodDrinkEurope has issued guidance for food and drink processors advising them to use the term ‘from a natural source’. FoodNavigator understands that a total of nine different versions of the phrase are under discussion. Aside from 'sweetness from a natural source' or 'sweet taste from a natural source', they include 'steviol glycosides are present in the leaves of the Stevia plant' and 'with extract of the Stevia plant' with steviol glycosides referred to by means of an asterix.

“We have received quite a few enquiries related to stevia’s ‘natural’ claim," said Robin. "There is nothing in the guidance to say if stevia is natural or not. 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."

Guidance reasonable

However, she said FoodDrinkEurope had clearly communicated its guidance and the industry viewed it as reasonable. As a result most food and drink manufacturers would be likely to adopt it or some version of it when marketing products containing stevia.

Aside from definitions of natural, concerns also persist over the liquorice-like aftertaste of stevia, with many processors using a blend of stevia with other sweeteners such as sugar to offset this.