Thursday, December 18, 2008


In the normal diet cane sugar and products containing sugar upwards of 10% provide pleasant taste and calories though corn based high fructose syrup(HFCS) has lately been finding increasing use in place of cane sugar. Since USA is not a major sugar cane grower, HFCS was developed there to encourage corn farmers and reduce dependence on imported sugar. Weight watchers and sugar compromised consumers strive hard to reduce sugar consumption as much as possible for obvious reasons. Besides dentists consider sugar as the biggest culprit for majority of tooth related problems and invariably advise people to shun sugar and if unavoidable to brush the teeth immediately to prevent proliferation of bacteria in the mouth. With the economy of many countries like Brazil, India, Mauritius and others depending heavily on sugar cane, it is difficult to stop world trade in sugar. The massive use of sugar cane in Brazil for ethanol production that can be an acceptable fuel singly or in blends with gasoline is a development fraught with implications for future and there is a possibility the world may see a slow fading of cane sugar into eventual oblivion.

The business opportunities offered by declining sugar consumption for health reasons have been grabbed with open arms by the chemical industry to develop synthetic sweteners like Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame Potassium, Neotame, Cyclamate, Sucralose etc which to day command significant patronage by sugar-wary consumers. An area of concern for the consumers of synthetic sweeteners is their safety for long term consumption. There is no uniform approach in the world as to how these food adjuncts have to be cleared to ensure consumer safety in absolute terms. Some are banned in some countries while others allow all the synthetic sweeteners except Cyclamate with intake restrictions. Accepted Daily Intake (ADI) levels for Aspartame (50mg/kg body weight), saccharin (5mg/kg), Acesulfame (15mg/kg) and Sucralose (5mg/kg) have been established. Since these are 200-600 times sweeter than cane sugar, their consumption can be considered reasonably safe.

Leaves of Stevia plant contain several glycosides, called steviosides sweet to taste and the species Stevia Rebaudiana yield almost 10% of these steviosides grown extensively in Paraguay, Japan and Brazil. World production of Stevia sugar is estimated at 1300 tons per year. These glycosides are about 500 times sweeter than cane sugar and are considered 100% safe because of the fact that stevia leaves were being consumed for centuries by the native population of Paraguay with no recorded adverse effect. ADI for Stevia sugar is determined to be 12 mg/kg body weight by the JEFCA of FAO?WHO. The process of making colorless and odorless product from the leaves is well known and pure steviosides are costly to make due to complexity of the technology. In India Touch Natural Pvt Ltd based in Mao in Manipur has ventured into Stevia sugar involving 300 farmers and setting up a plant in Kainu. Sun Fruits Ltd, Pune is reported to be taking up cultivation of the variety (SRB)128 for producing stevia sugar in India. 2-3 tons of dry leaves can be harvested with about 15-20% stevioside content from this variety which is expected to be grown in West Bengal and North East Region.

If stevia is a safe bet as a sugar substitute why is its consumption confined to a few countries, inspite of the fact that its cultivation is relatively simple? Why only Japan consumes more than 50% of the stevia sugar produced in the world? The answer is simple, the political intrigues amongst corporate bodies stradling the western world looking for greater and greater returns on their investments Otherwise how any sane person can justfy marketing of stevia sugar for table top use but not permitted in processed food products? Aspartame the most widely used artificial sweetener is associated with G D Searle and Monsanto Chemicals and they are bent on keeping their turf safe from competition. With the patent on Aspartame expiring and the prices tumbling down, Sucralose from Zydus Cadila, another corporate giant, is taking over the market as the new star and the combined efforts of this lobby is keeping Stevia out under one pretext or the other. Also in the news is the keen interest by Coca Cola and Cargil, the super giants, in Stevia sugar and their patents have not yet been cleared. They are already marketing table top sweeteners based on Stevia under the brands Rebiana and Truvia respectively. It is unlikely that Stevia will be cleared before the pending patents from the corporate giants are sealed. The recent announcement by Coca Cola to market beverages sweetened by Stevia sugar though not yet cleared by FDA, is a pointer that it will be approved as a safe industrial sweetener soon and in absence of any major manufacturers, industry will have to depend heavily on these multinational companies for years to come for supply of stevia sugar.


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