<p>Food safety regulator recommends natural alternative for soft drink concentrates, chewing gums and others.
For the growing number of calorie conscious-consumers, who would prefer a more natural alternative to sugar, there could be good news. A scientific panel for food additives at the apex Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the regulatory body which makes rules for food safety, has recommended the use of stevia, a natural sweetener for use in carbonated water, soft drink concentrates, chewing gums and table-top sweeteners.
The recommendations represent the first hurdle crossed by leading fast moving consumer goods companies such as soft drinks major Coca-Cola, branded edible oil & commodities major Cargill India and PureCircle (a stevia supplier), which had applied for permission for its usage in the country.
The recommendations will have to be cleared by an expert panel of FSSAI, a draft notification will then be circulated to all stakeholders before the final change is notified. The process can take eight to twelve months.
The panel has recommended up to 200 milligrams per kg of steviol equivalent, which is an active component in stevia, in carbonated water and soft drink concentrates. In chewing gums, the panel has recommended up to 3,500 milligrams per kg of steviol equivalent, while in table-top sweeteners the panel has not prescribed an upper limit leaving it to the discretion of the manufacturer instead who will have to declare how much he is using per tablet on the pack.
It has, however, sought clarity on the use of stevia in table-top sweeteners.
While Coca-Cola declined to comment, Ishteyaque Amjad, director, corporate affairs at Cargill said the move was a positive one. "We haven't received the letter from the FSSAI. But when we do, we will respond to it,” he said. Cargill markets the second-largest table-top sweetener in the US called Truvia.
This product uses two additives stevia and erythritol in combination with each other.
Stevia is a species of herbs and shrubs, which was first grown in both north and south America. As a sweetener, stevia's taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar-and is an attractive natural sweetener for people with diabetes or who prefer low sugar diets.
Industry experts, however, say that while the shrub is available in retail stores and grown in some places in south India, the sugar lobby has not taken too well to the alternative. The reason, say FMCG companies, is that as much as 60 per cent of sugar produced in the country is consumed by alcohol, beverages and confectionery companies.
The popularity of stevia could pose a challenge to them.
Stevia extracts are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. To achieve the profile of sugar, therefore, using it with another additive helps.
Globally, Stevia is approved as a food additive in a number of countries, including the US, China, Japan, Mexico, France, Paraguay, Korea, Brazil, Israel, Malaysia and Taiwan. In Japan it accounts for over 40 per cent of the sweetener market there. The European Union is on track to clear stevia for use by the end of this year.
The additive this year was approved by CODEX Alimentarius, an international body created by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, for usage across product forms.
While the recommendations by FSSAI's scientific panel for food additives do not explicitly state whether stevia can be used in combination with another additive, food science experts say it would have helped had that been considered as well. A detailed mail to FSSAI seeking answers to these questions remained unanswered. "People prefer the taste of sugar. And if stevia can be used in combination with another additive, it will help," said the managing director of a food company, requesting anonymity.
Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi in India, for instance, use aspartame and acesulfame K, which are synthesied, high-intense sweeteners.
If stevia is allowed to be used in combination with low-intense sweeteners, it could go a long way in helping manufacturers replace high-intense, synthesied sweeteners, which are said to have adverse effects in case of high usage, said experts.
Apart from aspartame and acesulfame K, the other high-intense sweeteners permitted in India include splenda or sucralose and saccharine.