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Home > Media Reiews > News Review Last Updated: 14:52 03/09/2007
News Review #15: March 20, 2002

Familiar food items off shop shelves

Reviewed By Hitoshi URABE

"Familiar food items off shop shelves",1870,108899,00.html
By Dominic Nathan, The Straits Times

The article reports that the authorities in Singapore have ordered to clear the shelves of shops carrying imported food products, mainly from Japan and Korea, for their content of banned sugar substitute stevia.

One amusing aspect of this issue is that it happened in Singapore. It was just this January Japan concluded Free Trade Agreement with Singapore, first-ever for Japan with any country in the world to go into such an arrangement. This incident should be a good lesson for the people involved to learn in real terms that the existence of Free Trade Agreement would not suffice for goods to cross borders freely, that there are still hordes of barriers, such as difference in food safety standards, that must be overcome to realize free trade in true sense of the term. Japan is just beginning to experience what others, such as NAFTA and EU, have had gone through.

But, by the way, what is this thing called stevia?

Most of the people in Japan could readily recognize it as a food additive, and some would describe it as a sweetener, substitute for sugar with no calories. It is so common in Japan that a study conducted by a consumer group, simply purchasing whatever food sold in a local supermarket and counting the number of products with an indication on the label that it contains stevia, revealed that about a third of food products sold in Japan contained stevia. And the familiarity is promoted even further by a fairly popular brand of soft drink which incorporates the word stevia in its product.

Stevia is not an artificial sweetener. It is made from "stevia rebaudiana", a shrub having its origin in South America, where local people have been chewing it for centuries. Extracted and refined from this plant is the product, stevia.

To some it may be amusing to know that stevia, as a food additive, was first produced in Japan. When the people's awareness toward food safety became apparent, especially sensitive to synthetic food additives in the 1960's, researchers began looking into this very little known plant at the time. After a few years, stevioside and other stevia products derived from the plant was introduced to the public by a consortium of Japanese food-product manufacturers. Stevia then quickly penetrated most of the food processing industry, and it is now literally impossible to live in Japan avoiding it, stevia can be found in ice cream, bread, candies, pickles, seafood, vegetables, yogurt, chewing gum, crackers, soft drinks, and pretty much of whatever food you name it.

Outside of Japan, stevia is reported to be used routinely in such countries as Paraguay, Brazil, South Korea, Israel, and China. A good chunk of world population one might say, but what about other countries?

There seems be a number of reasons for stevia being not popular on the world scale. One is ignorance. Many people simply lack knowledge of the product. Another is technology. Although it is produced from just a shrub, it has to be raised with certain care, as with any farm produce, then a relatively high level of technology is necessary to make it into a food additive with sweetness and stability comparable to real sugar.

And then there is yet another very large factor. Stevia is prohibited to be used as a sweetener in both the United Stats and the European Union. (U.S. allows it to be sold as a dietary supplement, but the market is negligible compared to sweeteners.) As recently as in 1998, EU reviewed, and confirmed its stance to prohibit the use of stevia as a food additive. (Just as a note, Japan has since then in 1999 and 2001 reconsidered and reaffirmed the safety of stevia.)

As explained earlier, Japanese people have been consuming stevia for decades already. And there is apparently a movement going on in the U.S. favoring usage of stevia over totally artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.

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