ISC has made great strides in implementing purity standards for the stevia industry.
Stevia, the no-calorie natural sweetener, is now found in hundreds of food products around the world, including teas, soft drinks, juices, yogurt, soymilk, baked goods, cereals, salad dressings, and ice cream. The sweetener’s source is the plant originating in South America, Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, from which natural substances called steviol glycosides are extracted. There are 10 steviol glycosides extracted from the plant’s leaf that can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia was first only available for use as a tabletop sweetener but gained approval by FDA for uses other than dietary supplements in 2008. Since then, stevia’s popularity continues to rise on a global scale. It is already used in products in Japan, China, Paraguay, Brazil, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Australia. This November, long-awaited approval was finally received to market stevia in foods sold in the European Union.
In light of the booming market for stevia, the International Stevia Council (ISC) was formed in 2010 as a trade association to represent the sector. “In just 15 months, we’ve grown to become looked upon as a trusted, recognized voice for the stevia industry,” says Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director for ISC, which manages its global office in Brussels.
Carl Horn, ISC’s president, says the feedback received from every member company is valuable, and that even smaller companies need to be represented. “It takes a collective effort for us to achieve our goals, and I’ve been so impressed by the activities of our committees. Everyone is working for the common good of the entire industry.”
ISC addresses issues regarding the regulatory status of stevia throughout the world, communicates the science behind stevia’s safety to regulatory agencies, and supports stevia production. The council is also working on a communications strategy to help convey stevia’s health benefits to the public.
This year, ISC made its most important contribution yet to the advancement of the stevia industry: the enactment of the Proficiency Testing Program (PTP). The PTP is designed to help companies determine the quality of their stevia products by measuring steviol glycoside content. The test ensures that consistent analytical methods and reference standards are used throughout the industry-which wasn’t always the case. Due to the variety of testing methods that were used before, the purity levels of stevia products were not being measured in such a standardized way.
“By setting benchmark standards for analytical methods, it allows a supplier to see where its methods and analytical competency stand in relation to others in the industry,” says Amy Boileau of Cargill, an ISC member. “It’s a statistically valid analytical testing scheme, with a round-robin measurement technique at its core.”
From an analytical standpoint, there were technical challenges in creating the PTP, in part due to the fact that the stevia industry is so young. “We had to come together to identify and validate the best testing scheme for what would become a successful proficiency testing program for the industry,” explains Boileau. “The analytical science behind stevia is developing so rapidly as well, which further added to the challenge of designing the right testing program,” she explains. Another challenge was the fact that steviol glycoside compounds can be difficult to analyze, according to Boileau.
“This test is in the best interest of the entire industry because it levels the playing field,” says Horn.
Since the PTP began in May, six companies have signed on to participate in the testing program, bringing the total number of participants to 16. ISC hopes to reach 25 by next year.
“It was an intensive process, which took six months, but all of our members were very committed to the project,” says Scardigli.
“We’re proud to be able to lay these very solid stepping stones for the industry,” adds Horn.
ISC’s membership is open to any company that processes and/or manufactures a stevia sweetener product with a purity level that meets international and national specifications.
ISC’s current member companies are: Cargill, Corn Products International, GLG Life Tech Corp., Granular, Morita Kagaku Kogyo, PureCircle Ltd., Sweet Green Fields, Verdure Science Europe, Waggot Pharmaceuticals, and Whole Earth Sweetener Co.