Known in some South American and Asian countries a long time, stevia sweeteners have attracted considerable attention from the food industry in the last two years, not least because extracts of the Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant with a 95 per cent purity of rebaudioside A (Reb A) were given the FDA thumbs up in the US in late 2008.
In Europe the EU declined approval for dried stevia in 2000, however, saying more research was needed. Since then new novel foods applications for steviol glycosides and for the whole leaf have been lodged with the European Food Safety Authority, and opinions are expected next year.
Meanwhile, France approved 97 per cent Reb A sweeteners this month, under a clause that allows pre-emption of EU approval for a two year period.
Industrial suppliers of stevia sweeteners are moving in to take advantage of these opportunities. But in Italy, as in other EU countries, the extracts and dried portions of the plant cannot currently be used.
Stevia, as well as being zero calorie, also has a low glycaemic index, which means it does not cause the same spike in blood sugar levels as sucrose and other refined carbohydrates. This means it is an attractive ingredient for sufferers of diabetes.
The new Italian national Stevia Association, NASTEVIA, was formed by Dr Desiderio Furlan earlier this year. Dr Furlan stumbled across stevia while researching products that would be suitable for his six year old daughter, who suffers from type 1 diabetes.
“We discovered the natural existence of a natural sugar that can be extracted from a plant called Stevia rebaudiana bertoni, and that this could be a real alternative to industrial sugars and sweeteners, thus allowing my daughter to eat sweet foods just like any other child,” he said.
“It is important to bear in mind that the products made using this plant are not only suitable for diabetics, but can be enjoyed by all.”
NASTEVIA’s aims are to promote scientific knowledge on the possible therapeutic and nutritional uses of stevia, and to provide the EU with information that could help ease the path towards approval. The association proposes creating a data bank for information gathered, and giving wide access to this.
It also has quality and standards parameters in its sights. It would like the criteria for testing, checking and assessing stevia products to be defined – as well as the quality criteria and analysis methods for stevia and products derived from it. It would support the development of a European quality mark if necessary.
There is a strong social element to the association too: to run cultural activities and events to aid the well-being of individuals, and improve the quality of life of members and affiliates.
For now, the association, which was registered in May, relies on voluntary assistance. It is seeking active members and finding to help it organise activities.
In the wider context, NASTEVIA is looking to make links with other associations institutes and bodies with shares aims and interests – both in Italy and elsewhere.
Dr Furlan emphasised that the association will be carrying out its activities “in full compliance with legislation currently in force”.
More information is available at www.nastevia.it.