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'Sweet Herb' may Be Green Gold for Paraguay

Paraguay is hoping a small herb that is not trafficked, addictive, or even fattening, could to be prove the real thing that the food industry has been waiting for .

Stevia -- Latin name stevia rebaudiana bertoni -- has been used for centuries by the Guarani native people to sweeten their drinks, being 300 times sweeter than sugar with none of the calories.

Now the 60 centimeter high (24-inch) shrub has caught the eye of the granddaddy of soft drinks Coca Cola, and its poor, small Latin American home is hoping the cash tills will soon start ringing.

Coca Cola and Cargill, one of the top US food companies, recently unveiled plans to make a stevia-based sweetener under the trade name Rebiana.

And even though the herb is not yet authorized for consumption in the United States and has only a limited use in the European Union, it is already popular in Asia where China has planted thousands of hectares (acres) of rural land with the shrub.

"Coca-Cola's announcement has sparked a giant interest," said Nelson Gonzalez, head of the stevia chamber of commerce, a trade group of producers under the aegis of Paraguay's ministry of industry.

The market for stevia has grown in Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador in South America, as well as in China Japan and South Korea, but the US Food and Drug Administration has termed stevia an "unsafe food additive," while the European Union allows its sale only as a food supplement or in cosmetics.

"World demand is enormous," Gonzalez said. "But the sugar lobby wants to stop the importation of this natural, safe, revolutionary product."

Studies at the medical school at the University of Asuncion found stevia had a long list of beneficial properties, being an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and an anti-bacterial agent useful in the battle against diabetes, high blood pressure and tooth decay.

But it is finding it hard to shak
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