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Commission flags up November for EU-wide approval of stevia

By Jane Byrne , 27-Jun-2011
Last updated the 28-Jun-2011 at 09:49 GMT

November 2011 should see steviol glycosides get regulatory backing for use in food in drink products in the European market, according to a European Commission (EC) representative.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gave a positive safety opinion on steviol glycosides in April 2010, in line with the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), which approves the use of steviol glycosides at 95 per cent purity or above.

But European stevia has been an industry-in-waiting, with the European Commission (EC) yet to grant its approval of stevia sweeteners.

Bringing industry up to date on the regulatory timeline, Wim Debeuckelaere from the Directorate General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco) told delegates at the Stevia 2011 conference in London last week that the natural sweetener is now on schedule for sanction by the EC in “November or December at the latest.”

Frederic Vincent, the Commission’s spokesperson for health and consumer policy, also told FoodNavigator.com this morning that "the sweetener is also on the agenda of the upcoming Standing Committee of EU Experts" which takes place on 4 July.

Scrutiny by the European Parliament is an additional part of the stevia approval process, with Debeuckelaere’s presentation pointing to September/October as the likely dateline for this.

Stevia innovation activity

Angus Flood, president of the World Stevia Organization, having met with Debeuckelaere last week, emailed FoodNavigator.com the following statement:

“We are delighted that that the EU has confirmed we are on track for approval of WHO JECFA specification of stevia glycosides in November/December.

Indications from many of our 500 corporate and institutional members are that innovation activity is well advanced in anticipation of rapid roll out early in 2012.The principal areas of interest are in sugar reduction and replacement of synthetic aspartame and sucralose.

Fast to market applications are likely to be beverage, dairy, chocolate and retail tabletop. Stevia sweeteners have performed very well in France and now have achieved 23 per cent market share in the US since 2009. EU adoption levels are likely to exceed this.”

“Holy grail”

The global intense sweeteners market is dominated by aspartame and, to a lesser extent, sucralose. However, interest in food ingredients from natural sources has led some to consider that the stevia plant could provide ‘the holy grail’ of sweeteners.

Reb A is one of the major steviol glycosides found in the leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar but has no calories, making it an attractive option for manufacturers catering to the market for foods and beverages with reduced, low or no sugar.

Permitted in France

In France, stevia sweeteners with a high purity of the steviol glycoside Reb A have been permitted under a two-year window in advance of full EU approval since September 2009.

That has been helpful as it has allowed suppliers to start shifting volumes and also to provide a test market.

“A lot of foreign companies have been checking what has been happening in France. It allows them to study the market and see consumer reactions," commented Hervé Ory-Lavollée, chairman of ingredients supplier Lavollée back in March.

Products sweetened with stevia that have appeared on French shelves include a 70 per cent cocoa chocolate bar made by Swiss chocolate company Villars.

As to French regulatory status pending final stevia backing by the Commission, Ory-Lavollée told this publication earlier this year that discussions were underway with the authorities for an extension should one be required.

When pressed on this today, Commission spokesperson Frederic Vincent remarked: “As there would only be approximately a two month interim period between the close of France’s Reb A approval period and Commission approval of the sweetener for the entire European market, I not believe a legal loophole would exist.”