It may not be an ever popular artificial sweetener like NutraSweet, or have the crystalline texture of pure sugar, but the herb, which is commonly found at Trader Joes when it isn’t in its natural South American setting is sweeter than its sweetener counterparts—and calorie free.

The once banned herb stevia, which is 300 times the sweetness of sugar, is safe to consume in the U.S. as a dietary supplement, but pronounced unsafe by the Food and Drug Administration if used in food.

Originally discovered as a sweetener for yerba-matte tea in Paraguay and Brazil the herb is now legal to import, grow, sell and consume if listed as a dietary supplement and not an additive. This was not the case in 1991 when the FDA placed an import ban on the product as an “unsafe food additive.”

With its calorie-free appeal companies such as coca-cola have been interested in the sweetener for years. The Herb Research Foundation supported the notion that stevia would someday become a popular calorie free sweetener.

According to points addressed in “Controversial Products in the Natural Foods Market,” by the HRF President, Rob McCaleb, there is a strong probability that the ban by the FDA was influenced by a large company.

Mc Caleb’s “Stevia Leaf—Too Good to be Legal” addresses the controversy behind stevia and artificial sweetener companies. He exposes the information regarding the FDA’s attack on the sweetener because of apparent complaints.

The visits by FDA inspectors to herb companies that sold stevia began in 1987. According to McCaleb’s report, “by mid 1990 several companies had been visited. In one case, FDA's inspector reportedly told a company president they were trying to get people to stop using stevia "because NutraSweet complained to FDA.”

Representatives from NutraSweet failed to respond to attempts at questions regarding these claims.

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, DSHEA, signed into law by President Bill Clinton amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to establish new standards for the regulation of dietary supplements including vitamins, minerals, and herbal remedies. Thus, the consumption of stevia as a dietary supplement was granted.

The agreement about the DSHEA between grassroots organizations and Members of Congress was commended by President Clinton as well as the promotion of good health.

“In an era of greater consciousness among people about the impact of what they eat on how they live, indeed, how long they live, it is appropriate that we have finally reformed the way Government treats consumers and these supplements in a way that encourages good health,” President Clinton said.

There are several concerns regarding stevia health-wise, but most come with contradictory evidence. Among those are concerns that stevia may cause reproduction problems. European tests on male rats showed reduced production of sperm and fewer, smaller offspring for female rats when fed high doses of the herb.

A 2006 examination by the World Health Organization looking at the most recent sugarleaf tests among animals and humans stated that it did not pose as a carcinogenic threat. However, earlier findings show compounds in stevia, as able to be converted into mutagens which changes the genetic mutations of cells and causes cancer.

Douglas Kinghorn, professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago addresses stevia as a moderation issue bringing into light the use of the product in Japan for over 30 years with no reports of negative effects. “But the Japanese don’t consume large amounts of stevia,” Kinghorn said.

A toxicologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ryan Huxtable, believes the substance is alright if people don’t consume it in massive amounts. “In the U.S., we like to go to extremes, so a significant number of people here might consume much greater amounts.”