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Act Locally: Stevia research shows gaps in food safety net

During a week when, coincidentally, PBS has been airing a documentary on the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration, I found myself wending my way through the agency’s bureaucracy in order to research this article. That journey led to the discovery of a troubling gap in government food-safety oversight.

My intention had been to write a cheery article about home-grown herbs that can be used to replace chemical household products:

Lavender leaves or rosemary can be infused in white vinegar, a natural disinfectant, thus sweetening vinegar’s acrid smell when using it as a cleaning agent.

Dried lavender-flower sachets can help keep away moths; other herbs such as rosemary, thyme, eucalyptus or citronella can be added to the mix.

Citronella is a scented geranium that exudes a strong odor at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active. Instead of using candles or insect repellents, potted citronella plants can be placed outside near doors so mosquitoes don’t fly into the house. (Be sure to bring plants inside during the cold season).

Citronella leaves can be rubbed over bare skin to keep the bugs from biting.

Another herb that can be grown at home is stevia, a natural, noncaloric sweetener. I have been raising stevia since I discovered plants for sale at Valley View Nursery a few years ago. I sprinkle dried stevia leaves in soups, sauces, dips, drinks — any dish that needs sweetening, but not some of sugar’s other properties (like congealing or caramelization).

Processed stevia powder is available in stores and restaurants as a sugar substitute. But I thought it better to grow my own, until I began to research the plant for this article.

While indigenous tribes in Brazil and Paraguay have been using stevia leaves for centuries, the global market approached the product with caution when it was first introduced in the 1970s. Stevia was initially banned in both the U.S. and the EU. Only in 2006 did the World Health Organization finally acknowledge that no adverse health effects had been found. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevia)

A Wikipedia article I read linked readers to the FDA’s website. To my surprise, the FDA has seen fit to rate the processed (“purified”) granulated extract as “Generally Regarded as Safe” (GRAS), but has not afforded the same status to leaves from the natural plant.

As a responsible journalist, I had to question whether there was a component of the home-grown plant that wasn’t safe. Did the leaves contain a dangerous chemical that only gets “purified” when processed? I had to find out.

I queried more than a dozen FDA agents, as well as people from the Oregon departments of health, and agriculture, and U.C. Davis. Answers were difficult to come by because these agencies have compartmentalized their focus. Separate regulatory departments are set up to oversee the manufacture or importation of food or plants, but not the safety of plants intended for human consumption

Say a consumer were to pick up a basil plant from Trader Joe’s, and gaze at it, as one would an orchid — this would fall under FDA jurisdiction. But if the consumer tossed some of the basil leaves onto a caprese salad, no such luck.

As one FDA agent wrote me: “The growing of stevia as a plant is not regulated by FDA. People grow plants all the time that aren’t fit for human consumption. Plants also grow wild that humans should never consume. People should always understand the raw ingredients that they grow or harvest themselves before consuming those products.”

Ouch!

Some FDA agents I spoke to were aware of the gap in oversight, and expressed concern that consumers expect more protection from the FDA than is actually provided; others conveyed no sense of responsibility for the problem. Furthermore, academic departments are apparently not conducting research that could serve to fill in this strange gap.

As for stevia — the Ashland Food Co-op sells ground stevia leaf. Their distributor sources the powder from India, meaning the product must have been subjected to FDA inspection. A representative from the distributor pointed out that while the stevia leaf powder had been approved by the FDA for import and sales, it had not obtained GRAS status. As she wrote, “Any company that wants to have it added to the FDA GRAS list would have to perform a study and submit the results to the FDA for approval.”

So, if you want to substitute home-grown stevia for sugar, understand that its safety approval has slipped in between bureaucratic cracks.

That said, Valley View Nursery should have both citronella and stevia in stock in the next few weeks.

Stevia plant