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It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of two new zero-calorie sweeteners. They come from a plant called the stevia plant. The stevia plant - somewhere in the deep recesses of their minds, someone in my family is already formulating a joke. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that Coca-Cola and others plan to introduce products sweetened with stevia-based products.
ALLISON AUBREY: In an age when consumers are willing to pay a premium for natural food, it's not a surprise that the plant-based sweetener stevia would be appealing. Its leaves are much, much sweeter than table sugar, though they don't contain any sucrose or fructose. The molecular structure is completely different and can leave a sharp, bitter aftertaste, almost like licorice. So, the soft drink industry is introducing a purified version of what they say is the best-tasting part of the leaf, compounds called Rebiana, or Reb-A.
Dr. PAUL BRESLIN (Scientist, Monell Chemical Senses Center): Well, there's no question that people find them sweet, and people like sweet. I suspect that people will like them.
AUBREY: Paul Breslin is a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. He studies human perception of taste. He says the stevia plant has long been known for its sweetness, but for years it's been relegated to the dietary supplement aisle of natural food stores, where niche marketers quietly built up a base of customers. Now that food industry giants Coke and Cargill have convinced the FDA that Rebiana is safe to add to foods and drinks, it will likely pass the lips of many new consumers. Cargill's Amy Boileau says her company spent about five years researching the sweetener.
Ms. AMY BOILEAU (Spokesperson, Cargill, Inc.): There's a very large body of published safety studies available that definitively support the safety of Rebiana.
AUBREY: She says food authorities in Australia and New Zealand, as well as a World Health Organization panel, have approved as well. But not everyone is convinced of Rebiana's safety. Michael Jacobson heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Dr. MICHAEL JACOBSON (Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Normally, the FDA requires major food ingredients, like this one will be, to be tested over the long term on rats and mice.
AUBREY: He says the FDA should have required more testing before signing off. As for taste buds or individual preferences, Monell's Paul Breslin says table sugar seems to taste the same to most everyone, but that's not true with these high-potency sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and now Stevia.
Dr. BRESLIN: I think you'll get a lot of variation across people in these kinds of sweeteners.
AUBREY: Coke is betting that the new zero-calorie Sprite Green will hit a sweet spot with young consumers. They'll begin rolling out the drink at bars and clubs that appeal to 20-somethings in New York City and Chicago this month. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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