The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) late last night declared that a controversial new sweetener is safe, raising the ire of consumer advocates who charge that not enough tests have been done to rule out possible risks. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today denounced the FDA decision, saying that previous animal studies showed a possible link between potentially cancerous genetic mutations and the no-cal sugar sub stevia, which is derived from a shrub grown in South America.

"It is far too soon to allow this substance in the diet sodas and juice drinks consumed by millions of people," CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said in a statement.

But the soft drink industry, which is set to begin offering beverages containing stevia, applauded the decision as did animal rights activists pleased that no more animal testing would be done to prove the sweetener safe. "The FDA's decision has spared thousands of animals from having the stevia derivative pumped into their stomachs for their entire lives," the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement.

The FDA late last night faxed letters to Cargill and Whole Earth Sweetener Company (which partnered with Coca Cola and PepsiCo., respectively,  to provide stevia for some of their beverages) to alert them of its finding. And today, Pepsi began selling its new, stevia-sweetened SoBe Lifewater in Indiana stores. "By mid-January, we should have full national distribution of zero-calorie SoBe Lifewater," says PepsiCo spokesperson Kristine Hinck.

Coca Cola did not return calls for comment but told the Wall Street Journal that it was going ahead with plans to begin selling a new low-cal Sprite Green and some Odwalla drinks containing stevia some time this month.

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