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In Search of the Perfect Sweetener

Many people love the taste of artificially sweetened drinks, guzzling down ten Diet Cokes a day. For others, it’s too much of a compromise. Sure, the calorie count is microscopic, and there’s even that hint of indulgence. But there’s also aspartame, saccharin and other clinical-sounding sweeteners that can’t completely win over their taste buds.

This compromise may soon be over, courtesy of a centuries-old South American herb. Stevia, or Sweet Leaf, is said to be 300 times as sweet as conventional sugar and with a fraction of the calories. It’s gaining momentum throughout the world, and manufacturers in America are definitely interested: Last year, Coca Cola and Cargill developed their own stevia-derived sweetener, which they’ve called Rebiana.

There’s a catch, however. The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t cleared stevia to be sold anywhere beyond the dietary supplement aisle. Companies have pushed hard to change this, and as reported yesterday, the country’s largest supplier of stevia, Wisdom Natural Brands, has decided to bestow the GRAS status on its own. That means tabletop stevia sweeteners could be on shelves within weeks. If the FDA decides to crack the whip, however, that could bode poorly for Wisdom and affiliated retailers. Coke and Cargill, meanwhile, are offering their sweetener in countries that have already ok’d stevia, like Japan and Brazil.

If stevia does get the FDA’s blessing, there may be no stopping it. Indeed, even the sweetener’s main Achilles’ heel — a licorice-like aftertaste — is being tweaked by food scientists. All of this could turn into great news for retailers, who have enjoyed ever-increasing sales of healthy beverages. As always, though, they need to take care not to get ahead of good science and regulation.

Doing that might truly leave a bad taste in their mouths.