There's never been any doubt about the sweetness of stevia: The extract alone can be up to 300 times as powerful than regular sugar. It's noncaloric, and that's why, after generations, this native Paraguyan herb is of such interest right now.
What is in doubt is the reaction of federal regulators when stevia starts showing up on food ingredient lists, because the United States is one of a handful of countries that classifies stevia a dietary supplement, and therefore subject to full regulation.
Two small companies are already clearing new territory: Blue California and Wisdom Natural Brands have have "self-affirmed" their stevia-based sweeteners as GRAS - Generally Recognized as Safe. That's a designation usually granted only by agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA — through the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act — allows stevia to be sold legally in the United States, but only as a dietary supplement. It's already in plenty of drinks, teas and other items, labeled as "dietary supplements." What everyone wants now is for the FDA to loosen up a little and simply allow stevia to be called a "sweetener" like high fructose corn syrup, or sugar.
Blue California and Wisdom Natural Brands (makers of the SweetLeaf brand pictured left) are pushing the envelope for another reason. They're facing big-time competition. Coke and Cargill, who have been jointly investigating the herb's properties, this week set up a large staffed display in New York City touting Truvia, the brand-name sweetener developed by their stevia research. Consumers visiting the display areas receive background information and history on stevia, its safety properties and even get to taste some.
No matter what happens, watch for the FDA to start moving quickly on getting stevia's status as GRAS approved in a more timely manner. Not only are bigger companies pushing for it, consumers who've tasted the new sweeteners will likely be joining the chorus of those demanding a new, all-natural sugar alternative.