The recommendation was made by a scientific panel for food additives, which was made up of scientists and researchers from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the top regulatory body for the Indian food sector.
Among the products the panel said would be allowed to use stevia as a natural sweetener were carbonated water, soft drink concentrates, tabletop sweeteners, and chewing gums to begin with, if its recommendations are approved.
The panel said that up to 200mg of steviol per kg body weight could be used in carbonated water and soft drink concentrates, while up to 3,500mg of steviol per kg body weight could be used in chewing gums.
The panel however declined to mark out any limit on the use of stevia in tabletop sweeteners, calling for the manufacturer instead to decide and declare how much of stevia will he uses per product.
Sourabh Agarwal, chief executive of the India Stevia Association (ISA), told FoodNavigator-Asia that the recommendations are a response to applications made over the years by Stevia Biotech Pvt. Ltd., and Coca Cola and Cargill, for the use of stevia in these products.
“I can confirm that Stevia Biotech has received a letter from FSSAI in this regard. It was Stevia Biotech that first applied to the Indian authorities for the use of stevia back in 2005,” he said.
Aggarwal however added that there is still no clear picture from the panel on whether stevia can be used in combination with other additives, a practice that makes stevia more palatable for food products.
For now however, the recommendations will become a part of a draft proposal that the FSSAI will circulate amongst the industry and policy makers, an official at the regulator told FoodNavigator-Asia on the condition of anonymity.
“That would be a lengthy process. I would think that a minimum of a year would pass by before we see an official notification. It could be longer too if there are concerns or questions from the industry, most notably the sugar makers,” he said.
India has a large sugar industry, run in a social, cooperative style, which supplies many of the domestic facilities producing the said products, and many expect that the use of stevia is not something they will lend support to.
The ISA’s Aggarwal however does not agree to this line of thought. He added that the sugar industry would not be threatened by the stevia approval given that it is “a US$10bn plus industry and stevia would barely manage to be a billion dollar industry in the next five years, if approved.”
According to previous statements from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, the Indian sugar industry supplies more that 50% of its produce to beverage and confectionery companies.
More queries sent to the FSSAI’s press office remained unanswered while no one at Coca-Cola responded to a request for comment prior to publication.