December 18/Chicago/Chicago Tribune -- Federal regulators have given the green light to stevia, a natural zero-calorie sweetener that could transform the industry and have a significant impact on Chicago-based Merisant Co.

The beverage industry, which relies on artificial sweeteners for diet drinks, has long sought a natural alternative, analysts say, and both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co. are hoping sweeteners derived from leaves of the stevia bush will do the trick.

Both beverage companies are expected to launch drinks featuring stevia-based sweeteners, with Pepsi saying it plans to have one in stores by this week. The FDA approval should also lead to much wider distribution of stevia-derived packet sweeteners for coffee and tea.

Merisant, maker of PureVia, a stevia-based sweetener, announced on the 17th it received a letter of "no objection" from the FDA.

Merisant, maker of the popular artificial sweetener Equal, last spring asked the FDA to declare PureVia "generally accepted as safe." Minnesota-based agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. did the same for Truvia, its stevia-based sweetener. Cargill also said it received a "no objection" notice from the FDA.

PureCircle likewise announced that FDA's "no objection" letter with respect to Reb A indicates the FDA has no objection to the conclusion that Reb A at a minimum specification of 95% is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) among qualified experts for use in beverages, foods and tabletop sweeteners. This response from the FDA clears the way for  PureCircle's "high-purity Reb A" to be adopted as a key ingredient in mainstream food and beverage production.

"For Merisant, this is very big," said Paul Block, Merisant's CEO. "It's going to be the lion's share of our business going forward."

Merisant, which is owned by private-equity investors, has been plagued with falling sales in recent years as Equal has lost significant market share to Splenda, another artificial sweetener.

Merisant's PureVia brand of tabletop sweeteners is beginning to hit retail outlets, while Cargill's Truvia packet sweetener has been on grocery shelves for months. Federal law allows companies to self-certify products as safe prior to formal FDA approval.

Merisant and Cargill submitted extensive documentation to the FDA regarding their products' safety. With the FDA's action, stevia's roll-out will go "very fast," Block said.

From the December 22, 2008, Prepared Foods e-Flash