Sourabh Agarwal, chief executive, India Stevia Association, New Delhi, and CMD, Stevia Biotech, in a conversation with Manjushree Naik talks about FSSAI scientific panel's recent recommendation for approval of stevia and the current scenario
A scientific panel has recently recommended the approval of stevia as natural alternative to sugar for soft drink concentrates, chewing gums and other processed food products. Comment.
Actually, the scientific panel is quite late in taking this up. When the transition from Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to Food Security & Standards Act happened, there were no rules and regulations in this regard. About one-and-a-half years back people here received this application made by certain industries. This has to come as a general appeal. Four companies applied for specific needs these included Coca-Cola, Stevia Biotech, Cargill and one agro food company.
As per their application, the scientific panel has taken JECPHA (Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives), WHO-EFSA (European Food Safety Agency) recommendations and Australian and New Zealand Government's regulations, and come out with the recommendations. The GRS has been appended by FDA first, but later approved as sweetener.
The sugar industry is not in favour of these recommendations. So will the draft proposal encounter opposition from this powerful lobby, which is expecting a large market from the soft drink industry and others?
Nothing on record, it is a general perception. They have not said they are opposing, people are just thinking. We did a lot of research on sugar lobby and found Stevia had no kind of effect on it. Actually, cultivation of Stevia will not match the sugar industry even in 20 years as even then the entire crop can't be more than 1 per cent of what sugar industry is in India. Stevia can be complementary to sugar or saccharine industry. Stevia in my opinion is no threat to sugar in terms of cultivation and usage in production.
It can, in fact, make available different range of products for the calorie-conscious consumer. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are said to be launching calorie-conscious products and they are very much happy. Stevia will be an appropriate sugar alternative.
The panel is said to have recommended 200 mg of steviol per kg body weight could be used in carbonated water and soft drink concentrates, 3,500 mg of steviol per kg body weight in chewing gums but there is no clarity on use of stevia in tabletop sweeteners. What is your opinion on this?
Researchers all over the world have proven the use of Stevia. Japan, in the last 40 years, had not a single negative report on Stevia. It is used in Japan in 80 per cent of the food products.
Tell us more about its safety.
It is safe, but non-willingness of government is hampering as the government is overlooking the production. Government is least bothered. The Regional Plant Board basically put it as natural medicinal plant and in the priority list. It was last confirmed in March this year. NMPB does not have any objection and it may extend recommendation to the government for Stevia.
What are the recommendations by the panel?
As far as the recommendations are concerned, there is no basis in the form of their own study. It is basically defined by JECPHA and WHO and adopted by EFSA. The Australian-NZ authorities picked up areas from there only. Actually speaking, the panel does not have to do anything. It is all a part of Codex - all recommendations have been adopted, which are made by JECPHA, WHO. Thus Codex recommendations can be adopted as it is. If they have not opposed to Stevia, why we should?
What about the use of stevia in combination with additives. What is the panel's view in this regard?
In Codex, all these areas are also defined. The entire recommendation can be adopted as it is. The panel need not reinvent the wheel. If these are not been opposed in Codex, why not adopt them as it is. Then there will be no delay for consumers - especially for people suffering from diabetes and obesity it is a wonderful product.
5. Meanwhile, the new FSS (Prohibition & Restriction on Sales) Regulations state no person shall sell any food product wherein artificial sweetener is permitted under these regulations, except under packed conditions as per the labelling requirements. So how will these recommendations be implemented in the context of the new FSS law?
India is a part of Codex. Codex has everything. Why another research, when it has everything, why oppose it? When there was this restriction decision by FSSAI then why Stevia products were sold for the last 10 years? Supporting Codex, JECPHA, WHO is easy as in one day they can be approved.
How is the Indian FSS law with regard to sweeteners when compared to those that in developed countries?
There is no Stevia processing unit. Cultivation that is done is disorganised. It can, in fact, be a cash crop for farmers with 3-4 harvests in one year. It's like a cash crop in hand. All farmers can get better rates compared to the connecting crop. Give farmers the possibility so that the industry also can. Stevia Biotech is all set for international clearance from the government.
How big is the Stevia industry in the country and what more can be done for its growth?
Sweeteners - cane sugar, alcohol aspartame, menthol zero calorie cholesterol all are based on chemicals. Equal, Sugar Free - all are using that. But stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar, zero calorie. Why chemical is approved in combination but a natural product is restricted?
What stand can be taken as far as natural sweeteners are concerned?
Nothing on paper has been seen for the last 10 years. After the 21st July panel meeting, all state companies stopped sale of Stevia. On what basis they have restricted it? Why were they sleeping during the last 10 years? Allow it fully as per Codex recommendation but the industry has been kept away. Industry involvement, FSSAI can do that. Only points are correlated. Last six years we are campaigning.
There has been cold response from FSSAI. There has been this change from PFA to FSSA, but people are not there. The policy implementation is still not clear, it is not doing anything. Not taking responsibility. When India being member of Codex, if India has not opposed Stevia in Geneva meeting, then why not FSSAI adopting it as it is? No new research is needed. Every country and every department cannot go for it. They do it on regular business. These are international Codex laws, Codex is dealing with it, but India is not giving approval.
When are the panel's recommendations likely to be implemented?
The draft is being circulated right now.