I've been reading a lot of American blogs about healthy, natural foods and raw diets and everyone seems to be using a sweetener called stevia.
I just assumed it was like an American Canderel-type artificial sweetener so never really thought much of it at first, until I started thinking that if the girls I'm reading about are eating all natural, healthy, RAW foods, they aren't going to be using an artificial sweetener!
When I first googled it everything I saw was really negative and mostly linking stevia to cancer. The Food Standards Agency in the UK carried out safety assessments which resulted in stevioside not being allowed for sale as a food or food ingredient in the UK, or the EU. The most up to date information I found on the FSA site is from 2002 and a 2004 entry stating that they have banned importation of stevioside into the UK.
Stevioside was first considered for approval in the EU in 1985 and reviewed in 1988 and 1998: "The data considered by the Committee indicated that the extract has the potential to produce adverse effects in the male reproductive system that could affect fertility and that a metabolite produced by the human gut microflora, steviol, is genotoxic (ie. damages DNA). The Committee concluded that stevioside was not acceptable as a sweetener."
Also in 1998 the was a request for stevia to be approved as a "novel food" (food products which were not used for human consumption to a significant degree) in the EU, this was reviewed by Belgian Authorities and in the UK - both concluded stevia could not be approved "due to lack of information supporting its safety"
The criticism of stevia seems to stem from a 1985 study which reported that steviol may be a mutagen - which apart from reminding me of the word I used instead of 'close' when I was a baby ("mutiden the door") can also be a carcinogen. However, this report has been widely criticised due to its procedures and the handling of the data apparently meaning that even distilled water would appear mutagenic.
According to Wikipedia (I know, not the best source but quick and easy!) the WHO in 2006 performed a thorough evaluation of various studies and found no evidence of carcinogenic activity.
In the US, stevia was banned except for use as a supplement and in 2008, Reb A - which is extracted from stevia was permitted as a food additive in the US - both Coca-Cola and Pepsi were involved in developing Reb A sweeteners. Though the FDA did not actually grant approval but confirmed they would not object to its usage.
Stevia is only banned in the UK, EU (except France for testing), Singapore and Hong Kong.
Some sources suggest that restrictions on stevia may be connected to the "powerful forces with financial interests in sugar and sweeteners"
Most of the information outside of the UK seems to suggest stevia is safe to use as a sweetener and I have noticed quite a few UK sites who sell stevia, though some of them do mention that it's not being sold for human consumption ;)
The above is just information I found online because I was interested, not something I have researched in detail, I can even say how accurate my sources are and I have only linked to a few - I'm just sharing some thoughts really