Four years after the scientific panel for food additives at the country's apex food regulator first recommended its usage, stevia, a natural sweetener, has finally received a go-ahead from the latter.
In a notification dated November 13, the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India has permitted its use in a range of products. This includes carbonated water, dairy-based desserts and flavoured drinks, yoghurts, ready-to-eat cereals, fruit nectars and jams, among others.
The move, say experts, should pave the way for key users of sugar, including ice-cream, beverage and confectionary makers, to consider stevia as an alternative in their products. The natural sweetener is found in a plant called Stevia Rebaudiana. The chemical compound responsible for the sweetness is called steviol glycoside.
FSSAI has recommended up to 200 mg a kg of steviol glycoside in carbonated water, soft drink concentrates, yoghurts, fruit nectars, dairy-based flavoured drinks and non-carbonated water-based beverages. Ice lollies or edible ice may have up to 270 mg a kg of steviol glycoside. Dairy-based desserts and ready-to-eat cereals may have up to 330 and 350 mg a kg, respectively, of the compound. Jams, jellies and marmalades may have up to 360 mg a kg.
Chewing gum may have up to 3,500 mg a kg of steviol glycoside, and table-top sweeteners may have up to seven mg per 100 mg of the ingredient, the notification says.
In the past, companies such as Coca-Cola, Cargill and PureCircle (a stevia supplier), among others, had applied for the use of stevia in their products. Executives at Cargill India were not immediately available for comment. Officials at Coca-Cola said the development would allow them to consider how it could be used. Globally, Coca-Cola uses stevia in products such as Coca-Cola Life, billed as a health-conscious spinoff of its flagship cola. Rival PepsiCo has Pepsi True in its portfolio, which has stevia in it.
Cargill markets a popular table-top sweetener in the US called Truvia. This product uses two additives, stevia and erythritol, in combination.
Stevia extracts, say food safety experts, are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. "People prefer the taste of sugar. If stevia can be used in combination with another additive, it will help," said the chief executive of a food company, who declined to be named.
The November 13 notification from FSSAI does not specify this.
Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi in India use Aspartame and Acesulfame K, which are synthesied, high-intense sweeteners. So does Coke Zero.
If stevia is allowed, say sources, 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 be also triggers for cancer.
Apart from Aspartame and Acesulfame K, the other high-intense sweeteners permitted in India include splenda or sucralose and saccharine.