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Sweet news for the drinks industry -

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Sweet news for the drinks industry

The World Today - Tuesday, 7 October , 2008 12:38:00

Reporter: Simon Santow

ELEANOR HALL: Satisfying a sweet-tooth has, until now, meant a choice between sugar and artificial
sweeteners.

Now an Australian university has succeeded in getting approval for a natural sweetener that has no
calories and has already been tried and tested internationally.

The soft drink industry says the "stevia plant" has great potential and could make its products
attractive to new markets.

And while many nutritionists are also onside, they say there is still no substitute for unsweetened
food and drink.

Simon Santow has our report.

SIMON SANTOW: Korea, Israel and Japan are just some of the countries where steviol glycosides,
derived from the stevia plant, are used to sweeten foods and drinks.

Now after a decade of research and four years of submissions, scientists from Central Queensland
University have managed to persuade Food Standards Australian New Zealand natural sweeteners are
just as safe as artificial ones.

The University's director of Plant Sciences is Professor David Midmore.

DAVID MIDMORE: I think this opens up lots of opportunities, commercial opportunities, health
opportunities for the Australia public.

SIMON SANTOW: What would you see as its number one benefit in terms of health?

DAVID MIDMORE: Number one benefit I suppose is that it has no caloric value. So it passes through
the body, doesn't provide any energy to the people who use it as a sweetener. So you get a sweet
taste but you don't get the negative side of too many calories.

SIMON SANTOW: Stevia has soft drink manufacturers licking their lips in anticipation of fresh
marketing opportunities.

Tony Gentile is the Chief Executive of the Australian Beverages Council.

TONY GENTILE: It's a rather exciting new development for us because it adds the possibility of
developing products which may be regarded by the consumer as more natural than other sweeteners.

SIMON SANTOW: And what is the advantage in presenting itself as being more natural?

TONY GENTILE: Well people have a view that certain products are better than others. A lot of people
like sugar because it is natural and sugar has a great taste. Now steviol may attract a similar
group of people who like the taste and like the fact that it comes from a plant rather than a
process.

SIMON SANTOW: But with a growing obesity problem in societies, soft drinks really do have a bit of
an image problem. Might steviol be the answer to it?

TONY GENTILE: Well yes I do agree with you that soft drinks do have an image problem, not always
justified because the growth of the diet market and the bottled water industry has been enormous
and has replaced a lot of the sugar sweetened beverages and steviol will aid in that process.

I think steviol has the potential of helping the industry enormously to find new consumers or to
keep current consumers.

SIMON SANTOW: Scientists say stevia tastes up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Professor Midmore explains.

DAVID MIDMORE: With all artificial sweeteners, there's a little bit a taste to it and the same is
with this natural sweetener. Slightly liquoricey, it certainly could replace the artificial
sweeteners although I think the consumer would notice the difference.

SIMON SANTOW: But may actually prefer the taste.

DAVID MIDMORE: Oh they may prefer the taste indeed and certainly knowing that from a health
perspective it's almost certainly better for you I think the consumer will take it up very quickly.

SIMON SANTOW: Nutritionist Doctor Rosemary Stanton is familiar with the plant from which the
sweetener is derived.

ROSEMARY STANTON: You put it on your porridge and you think oh my goodness it's just so excessively
sweet, so I can't describe it except by saying that it has this excessive sweetness and of course
when it's used in foods you use a tiny little bit and you dilute it so that you're only going to
get as much so that it makes it a similar concentration as if you were having straight sugar.

But in itself if you eat it straight it is much sweeter in flavour than sugar.

SIMON SANTOW: And she warns that while it's an improvement on artificial sweeteners and too much
sugar, stevia does not provide a magic answer to the growing national problem of obesity.

ROSEMARY STANTON: It is something that's growing, it's not something that has to be made in the
laboratory and I think its safety profile is actually quite good. So I think that it's probably a
better product if you're going to have an intense sweetener.

DAVID MIDMORE: You say if you're going to have. What is that reservation you're referring to there?

ROSEMARY STANTON: Well I have a reservation in that many of the foods and drinks which contain
artificial sweeteners or intense sweeteners are basically junk foods and a junk food with stevia is
just as much junk food as a junk food with any other sweetener. So if you're going to be consuming
soft drinks and sweets and general sort of snack type foods that have this product, you're still
going to be getting a heap of preservatives and colouring and flavourings and other things that you
basically don't need. Particularly in the drinks where what you really need is some water.

So I think if it could be used in products like yoghurts, fruit products, some of those products
that also contain some nutrients then it's probably a good thing, but if it's going to encourage
you to really maintain the love of sweet drinks and sweet junk food then probably you're better off
loosing that love.

ELEANOR HALL: Nutritionist, Doctor Rosemary Stanton, speaking to Simon Santow.