(Adds comment from Beverage Digest)
By Martinne Geller
NEW YORK, July 9 (Reuters) - Agribusiness giant Cargill Inc [CARG.UL] 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 (TATE.L).
Sweet‘N Low is manufactured by New York-based Cumberland Packing Corp while Chicago-based Merisant owns Equal. 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 (KO.N) co-developed the product with Cargill and has exclusive rights to use Truvia in beverages. Rivals including PepsiCo Inc (PEP.N) and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc (DPS.N) 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.”
For the beverage industry, which has long searched for a natural diet sweetener, “rebiana is potentially a big deal, but I’d underscore ‘potentially’,” said John Sicher, publisher of industry newsletter Beverage Digest.
“If the beverage companies could replicate the taste of high-fructose corn syrup using stevia, it would be a huge deal. We’ll have to see whether that happens,” he said.
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 who are growing the plants in China and South America. One supplier, GLG Life Tech Corp (GLG.TO), said in May that it started building a 500-metric-ton stevia processing facility in Qindao, China.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers stevia an unapproved 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.
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.
Cargill, which handled the growing of the plants and consultations with the FDA, stands by the safety of Truvia.
“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.
On the product’s website, www.truvia.com, it says “new peer-reviewed studies published in a scientific journal establish the safety of rebiana (Truvia). These studies were on metabolism, intake and safety, and they included human studies. The results have clearly confirmed the safety of rebiana and refute earlier studies on crude stevia extract.”
The research was published electronically on May 15 in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal.
FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said on Wednesday that if a new food ingredient is “generally recognized as safe,” it does not require FDA approval before being sold.
She said Cargill has submitted a GRAS notice to the FDA, informing it that Cargill has determined that the product is generally recognized as safe and therefore does not require premarket approval.
Rawlings said the FDA will review the notice, and that the estimated time needed to complete such reviews is 180 days. (Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Carol Bishopric)