Cargill rolling out natural, no-calorie sweetener

NEW YORK Wed Jul 9, 2008 9:11am EDT

A man gathers bags of cocoa beans at the Cargill factory in San Pedro, the main exporting cocoa port in south western Ivory Coast, October 29, 2004. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

A man gathers bags of cocoa beans at the Cargill factory in San Pedro, the main exporting cocoa port in south western Ivory Coast, October 29, 2004.

Credit: Reuters/Luc Gnago

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Agribusiness giant Cargill Inc is starting to roll out Truvia, its natural, no-calorie sweetener on Wednesday, and expects the product to be on grocery shelves across the U.S. sometime this fall.

Truvia is made from certain compounds in the leaves of stevia, a shrub native to Paraguay, and will provide a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners including Sweet 'N Low, Equal and Splenda.

Truvia is going on sale first at a handful of D'Agostino supermarkets in Manhattan, and will eventually be sold at grocery stores and big box retailers across the country, said Steve Snyder, vice president and business director of Cargill's Truvia business.

Snyder declined to name specific retailers, but said it will be "widely available" in stores and from a company website.

A box of 40 green and white packets of Truvia will have a suggested retail price of $3.99, which Snyder said is a little more expensive than older, artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin, aspartame and sucralose, which are sold under the respective brand names of Sweet'N Low, NutraSweet and Equal, and Splenda, which is made by Tate & Lyle Plc.

Sweet'N Low is manufactured by Brooklyn, New York-based Cumberland Packing Corp while Chicago-based Merisant owns Equal. The NutraSweet Co is owned by Boston-based private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates.

Truvia also will be used as a sweetener in beverages and foods -- such as yogurts, cereals and snack bars -- in early 2009, Snyder said.

Coca-Cola Co co-developed the product with Cargill and has exclusive rights to use Truvia in beverages. Rivals including PepsiCo Inc and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc are working on their own versions of natural, no-calorie sweeteners.

According to a May release from Cargill and Coke, Truvia, also known as rebiana, is "the first consistent, high-purity sweetener composed of rebaudioside A, the best-tasting part of the stevia leaf."

Stevia is approved as a food additive in a dozen countries including Japan, Brazil and China, but not in the European Union or the United States. Yet it is sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement, since supplements are not subject to the same regulations.

Cargill is using various suppliers that are growing the plants in China and South America. One supplier, GLG Life Tech Corp, said in May that it started building a 500-metric-ton stevia processing facility in Qindao, China.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies stevia as an "unsafe food additive," saying on its website that "available toxicological information on stevia is inadequate to demonstrate its safety as a food additive or to affirm its status as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe)."

According to a story in May in the Wall Street Journal, studies of stevia's health effects have revealed potential mutations in livers of rats and concerns about fertility problems in men.

But Cargill, which handled the growing of the plants and consultations with the FDA, stands by the safety of Truvia and reiterated that it is made from certain compounds in stevia leaves and not the whole leaf.

"Although stevia today is sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement, rebiana will be the first available sweetener ... that has been purified from the stevia plant. Unlike many existing stevia products, which generally contain crude extracts of the plant, rebiana is...consistent in quality," the company said in May.

Cargill said it worked in consultation with the FDA for three years to make sure all health questions and concerns about Truvia were addressed.

There is no formal approval process for natural substances, but an "independent panel of experts met, reviewed the science, and made the statement that the product is safe," according to Cargill spokeswoman Ann Tucker. She added that the FDA has copies of the data proving that Truvia is safe.

(Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Carol Bishopric)

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