Stevia, Truvia, and PureVia

Stevia Plants
In many ways, nutrition mirrors fashion.  There are recycled trends (before hitting it big in 2003, low-carb was all the rage in the ’70s), media hype (Master Cleanse, anyone?), and up-and-comers with potential to become movers and shakers (as recently evidenced by the massive interest in all things coconut). The world of sweeteners – both natural and artificial – is particularly buzzing with activity; today’s post focuses on one of their more controversial figures – Stevia.

Stevia is a perennial shrub with sweet-tasting leaves that has been consumed by native populations in Paraguay for centuries (the plant’s leaves are dried and ground up into a powder which is then added to beverages).  In that sense, true Stevia has a lot in common with honey or maple syrup – it is a minimally processed sweetener.

Stevia has been used commercially in Japan for decades, but was banned in the USA in 1991 following a complaint by an industry group that, to this day, remains anonymous (some suspect that the makers of aspartame were behind the complaint in an attempt to dominate the alternative sweetener market).  Four years later, as a result of the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act (DHSEA), Stevia was allowed to be sold in the United States as a supplement (rather than a food additive). It’s worth pointing out that between 1991 and 1995, manufacturers submitted various requests to overturn the ban, all of which the FDA struck down citing concerns over Stevia’s safety in some rat studies, which have since been called into question.  More recent studies have shown beneficial effects.

Fast forward to 2008.  By that time, aspartame had been around for a while and concerns about its safety and sketchy approval process had started to make the rounds.  Splenda (sucralose) had been out for a few years, but it too had been hit by some negative press. Case in point – the market was ready for another sweetener. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, inspired by Stevia, petitioned the FDA to approve rebaudioside-A (Reb-A), an isolated extract from the plant, as a “Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)” food additive.  The FDA quickly granted approval.

And, so here we are.  Consumers can now choose between pure Stevia, products like Stevia in the Raw (corn-based carbohydrate dextrose + Reb-A), Coca-Cola/Cargill’s Truvia  (Reb-A + erythritol), and PepsiCo’s PureVia (Reb-A + erythritol + isomaltulose + cellulose powder + natural flavors).  Why the added elements in Stevia In The Raw, Truvia and PureVia?  Well, true Stevia – which, in powder form, looks a lot like catnip — does not taste or look like sugar, and we all know Americans want their sugar substitutes to resemble the real thing as much as possible (at least that’s what market research says).

It is important to point out that the only true natural sweetener is pure Stevia.  All other forms consist of a Stevia extract with added ingredients.

As a nutrition professional, one of my goals is to get people accustomed to lower levels of sugar in their daily life.  Although it has no impact on blood sugar levels, Stevia is 30 to 40 times sweeter than sugar, whereas Reb-A registers as approximately 300 times sweeter.  In that sense, simply replacing a high intake of sugar with an equal amount of Stevia misses the point. I would much rather people train their tastebuds to get used to less sweetness, so they can appreciate the depth of flavors in whole foods.  It takes our tastebuds three to four weeks to get used to lower levels of sweetness (and saltiness); certainly not an overnight change, but one worth making.

Additionally, it is one thing to add some true Stevia to coffee or tea, but processed foods sweetened with it (or its inspired trademarked products) are nevertheless processed foods that offer minimal nutrition.  I find it more beneficial to approach nutrition from a big picture standpoint (ie: a plant-centric, whole-food approach) rather than zoning in on specific sweeteners.

Addendum, October 22, 2011: Here’s Coca-Cola’s patent for manufacturing Reb-A, in a 40+ step chemical process. Hat tip to Bruce Bradley for finding this one!

About the Author

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Las Vegas-based nutritionist with a plant-centric and whole-food focus who takes an interest in food politics, deceptive food marketing, sustainability, and social justice. His work has been published in Grist, The Huffington Post, Today’s Dietitian, Food Safety News, and Civil Eats, among others. He is also the co-founder and the strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can read more of his work on his Small Bites blog and can also follow him Twitter and Facebook.

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October 18, 2011 6:01 pm

Interesting that people feel more comfortable with eating processed stevia products than with pure stevia, which is plant-based. I grew stevia last summer, dried the leaves and crushed them. Worked fine to sweeten tea, etc, but the little green flakes looked odd. I felt confident that a plant grown organically in my own garden was safe to consume, we don’t worry, for example, about the effects of eating basil or mint grown in our gardens, do we?

Laura @MOMables
October 18, 2011 12:17 pm

Thank you for making the distinction that only pure Stevia extract is the “real” thing and the rest is… well… the real thing plus added stuff. I try to make that case to my friends all the time and they only know what it’s advertised. I forwarded this post. fantastic!!

October 18, 2011 5:45 pm

Thanks for the reply Andy. Yeah, it’s more or less half a packet of the PureVia in my coffee in the morning. I’m working hard on training the tastebuds actually. Sweets have always been my Achilles heel in eating healthy. But it’s getting better!

October 18, 2011 11:32 am

Question after reading this: with the additives in PureVia and Stevia in the Raw, are they still a better choice than plain old raw sugar? I’ve been using PureVia and feeling good about myself for making the switch. Should I again switch to pure stevia?

Kelly Burgess
Kelly Burgess
October 18, 2011 11:27 am

I don’t feel confident that stevia is safe, and use coconut/palm sugar for sweetening. It is natural, and has a lower glycemic index than any other sweetener that I know of.

October 18, 2011 10:29 am

Extremely well-written piece – thank you both for your clarity of style and terrific content.

October 18, 2011 9:24 am

This is why I’m glad I don’t have a sweet tooth. It makes at least some part of October Unprocessed much easier for me. I don’t crave candy, soda, or sweet pastries. And I don’t have to worry about the deceptive nature of sweetener marketing.

(My salt tooth, on the other hand, is whining, but I’m working on it…)

Stacy (Little Blue Hen)
October 18, 2011 9:09 am

This is such a confusing topic for so many people. Thank you for your explanation! I absolutely agree about consuming fewer sweetened products to retrain your tastebuds. It’s amazing how used we are to the “extreme” flavors of snack foods.

Laura @ Family Spice
October 18, 2011 7:53 am

I’ve been using stevia for years to sweeten my morning tea. I would pay a fortune for it at my local health food stores until Costco started carrying PureVia packets. I recently found Stevia in the Raw and have used it in baking my GF low-carb goodies. You really don’t need much to make it sweet. Great write up!

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