Stevia is a green, leafy herb that grows in Central and South America. It was first discovered by modern explorers in the late 1800s in Paraguay, but it had been used by the natives for centuries before then. The official name of the plant is Stevia rebaudiana.
The USDA was told about the plant in the 1910s, but no company actively pursued it. Chemists and scientists occasionally played with the plant but saw no great interest in spending time on a plant simply to replace the easy-to-grow sugar cane. Finally in the 60s, Japan began working on Stevia with more energy. They didn't want artificial sweeteners, and sugar cane is not exactly ideal for Japanese growing conditions. By 1988, 41% of sweetened Japanese products used Stevia as a sweetener.
In the US, a massive reevaluation effort began in the 1970s to figure out which items were safe for human consumption, based on new testing and technology. This was an important effort, helping to find serious issues with chemical additives that had been used for years "just because". Note that stevia was NOT part of this sweep. Stevia never had been submitted, so by default it had the "unsafe" designation. Because of lobbying they allowed stevia to be used as a dietary supplement, but not officially as a sweetener.
The difference between these two designations is that a sweetener counts as a FOOD ITEM and therefore has incredibly stringent safety checks that are done on it. The FDA for our own protection only allows well documented and proven items to enter our food system. From their website: "there is no regulation in effect that provides for the safe use of stevia, nor is there a sufficient basis to conclude that stevia in generally recognized as safe among qualified experts for its intended use in food. Therefore, stevia is an unapproved food additive that is unsafe under Section 409 of the Act."
So it's not that the FDA has seen reports of 10 million deaths due to Stevia. It is that nobody has proven to the FDA that Stevia is *safe* yet. The FDA won't let untried products into the system and just watch and see who dies :)
Another section of the FDA website explains, "'The safety of stevia has been questioned by published studies,' says Martha Peiperl, a consumer safety officer in FDA's Office of Premarket Approval. 'And no one has ever provided FDA with adequate evidence that the substance is safe.' Under provisions of 1994 legislation, however, stevia can be sold as a 'dietary supplement,' though it cannot be promoted as a sweetener."
I'm not trying to be an FDA stooge here. I understand that all government organizations are influenced by all sorts of political reasons. But I believe strongly that our food system should be tested and kept safe. We can hardly yell at the FDA for letting in aspartame if we then also yell and tell them to push through something else without adequate testing. Sure, it's been used in Japan. I hate to tell you, but other nasty things have been used in the world for decades before they realized the harm the items were causing. That's never a good reason to 'jump on the bandwagon'. Just look at all the controvery over high soy usage.
So my stance here? I happen to believe Stevia is pretty harmless and good to use. I also think that if scientists believe in Stevia, they should do tests and prove it! This isn't rocket science. Devise experiments, run them, and get them published. The press will trumpet them, as they are trumpeting all sugar and obesity studies being done right now. And the FDA will have to at least look at them, despite conspiracy theorists who say they ignore all new information. If we had 10 studies done this year that proved Stevia was safe, I think we'd see progress. Until then, it's pointless to complain about Stevia's being kept out of the food additive system.