Lawsuit challenges Truvia’s claim to being a ‘natural’ sweetener

Posted by
July 30, 2013

A new class-action lawsuit calls Cargill’s Truvia marketing “unfair, unlawful, and fraudulent…” and “likely to deceive” consumers into believing its “stevia” brand sweetener is natural when it is in fact “highly chemically processed.”

The complaint, filed at the beginning of July in Hawaii federal court, also states that Truvia is merely one percent stevia, the rest being synthetic erythritol, which is derived from corn starch in a patented process. The Truvia box, however, describes erythritol as a simple, natural ingredient “found in fruits like grapes and pears.”

Of course nothing in the long and twisted stevia story is surprising. A bush-like herb native to South America, stevia has been a source of confusion and contradictions for decades, even while the herb itself has been used with no apparent safety issues – albeit in its truly natural form – for centuries.

First “discovered” and valued for its sweetness in Paraguay over a century ago, stevia hit the mainstream when it became a big seller in Japan in the 1970s. In the U.S. however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an aggressive campaign to curtail its use in food and beverages that included embargoes, searches and seizures, calling it an unsafe food additive (although it had been widely tested for safety by the Japanese, and had never generated any complaints of adverse reactions). It wasn’t until the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), that passed in 1994, that stevia could be legally imported or used, but only as a “dietary supplement” with no mention made of its sweetness or noncaloric nature.

Why the FDA went to so much effort to block the use of stevia has never been made public. But some in the natural foods industry have alleged that the agency’s actions were triggered by a “trade complaint” filed by the makers of NutraSweet, the original brand of aspartame (an artificial sweetener with a long record of health complaints).

Fast forward to 2008, when sweeteners containing stevia, including Cargill’s Truvia, began hitting supermarket shelves.  Had the FDA changed its tune about allowing stevia to be advertised and sold as a sweetener?

Well, not exactly. In fact, the FDA doesn’t even consider such products to be stevia at all, noting at its web site that “FDA has not objected to the use of these highly refined stevia preparations in food products,” since “they are not stevia” but are rather a “…highly purified product.”

Where’s the stevia?

The fact that Truvia, and other stevia sweeteners commonly found at most supermarkets, are derived from a highly refined and chemically-processed sweet glycoside of the stevia leaf called Reb A, isn’t exactly a new revelation. But the current class-action reveals that Truvia is comprised of only “…a minute amount of the stevia-derived ingredient,” the rest being synthetic erythriol that comes from corn starch converted “…to glucose through the biochemical process of enzymatic hydrolysis,” further fermented with yeast. Not exactly what one would call “nature’s perfect sweetness” as advertised on the Truvia box, which describes the Truvia-making process as stevia leaves “steeped in water” that is “similar to making tea.”

But it appears that Cargill may not have been surprised by this lawsuit, inasmuch as back in February, according to the web site Domain Name Wire, it registered dozens of domains ranging from cargill-truvia-natural-lawsuit.com to cargilltruvialawsuit.net to cargilltruviaclassaction.com, most likely to keep the names out of the hands of litigating law firms.

All in all, it hasn’t been a good year for Cargill. In June, the giant agribusiness firm was hit with another lawsuit, this one regarding its big seller, high fructose corn syrup. In a first-of-its-kind civil action, Cargill and five other HFCS manufacturers were sued for products liability, failure to warn, gross negligence, reckless conduct and injuries by a Buffalo-area woman and her 14-year old daughter who has type-2 diabetes, claiming that there is a “direct, causal connection” between the girl’s condition and her consumption of HFCS.

But Cargill, which is “very excited about the future (of Truvia)” may be hoping its refined stevia products will become as popular to the food industry as HFCS currently is. According to the web-based trade pub FoodNavigator-usa.com, its Truvia brand is predicted to be used in more than 1,300 foods and beverages this year, the most recent being Coca-Cola Life, introduced in Argentina.

No doubt all industry-eyes will be on the current stevia litigation, considering the big bucks that comes with holding onto the zero-calorie “natural” label at stake.