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.
I have been fighting cancer for 2.5 yrs and was looking for an alternative. All my Drs save if I have to cheat and must sweat, then use Stevia.
I’m not surprised the corrupt FDA banned it. They’ve banded 2 substances/supplements that was killing my cancer cells. I hate the FDA!!! They seem to be controlled by the drug companies.
So my comment to leave you with is thanks for the Stevia.
I couldn’t agree more about your opinion on the FDA. Go to Netflix and watch “FOOD INC”..It will really drive the point home about the corrupt FDA.
Also check out the penny stock symbol: STEV a Companty named STEVIA that works with PureVia and others.But be careful if you invest (it’s a penny stock that started a nice move up Friday, Feb28,2014).
Response to Laman: Look up the Halleluia Acres Diet at hacres.com
I was diagnosed with breast cancer 4 years ago. I put my trust in the Lord and stood on His word that He was my healer. I also got on the recovery diet described on hacres and did not need surgery or chemo. After reading the founders testimony you will see that it was a God sent program.
I appreciate the feedback. Guess I’ll have to tweak the ingredients to make up for less dry (sugar). Thanx, again.
Stevia for Baking?
I don’t sweeten my coffee or tea but am interested in substituting stevia in baking. I use, and really like, turbinado sugar of which I can always use less than called for because of its flavor and texture.
Can anyone share success stories w/stevia and baking?
Yes. I use pure stevia. I buy it in bulk (it’s very expensive however, if I am making a batch of cookies, it takes only 1/4-1/2 teaspoon to sweeten). I use this for my sweets only. If I bake for company, etc, I use unprocessed sweeteners such as sucanat, organic honey and coconut sugar. I have yet to try the turbinado. The stevia is very, very sweet and keep in mind, its sweetness is different than sugar. if you use too much, it can have a bit of a bitter aftertaste. It does not break down when baking and I have used it for pumpkin spice muffins, cookies and cakes. Remember, this is PURE stevia! Truvia and Purevia are not pure.
When I use stevia, I always use Pyure Brands Organic Stevia. I use the organic packets in my coffees, however they have a bakeable blend as well that weighs out cup for cup just like sugar. The bakeable blend does contain maltodextrin, however I was informed that it the amount is very small, and the processing turns a small amount into a large amount through aeration.This is a great product, and I highly recommend it.
I might be late for the party, but I have one question:
I used to take Canderel which I hate due to the fact that it has aspartame, but there was no aspartame-free alternative where I live. However, recently my local supermarket started selling “Canderel Green” (stevia based sweetener). Is this new one a good and safe alternative?
I tested stevia and have to say I’m not a fan as the taste is too bitter but maybe it isn’t all bad? I think more research over a longer period of time is needed anyhow to really see the benefits. http://pudding-girl.de/about-stevia/
Has anyone ever tried Kal Pure Stevia? It is a finely ground white powder and you need verrrrry little to sweeten anything(it is very potent).The powder comes with a tiny measuring spoon that for me(not sure about the next person), sweetens 8oz of drink. I use the liquid and the powder forms, but I don’t use them everyday, as a matter of fact, I don’t even use them every week, but when I do, I love the results.
I use so little of any kind of sweetener,that I have just decided to go back to raw and demarara sugars. Less than a teaspoon in my tea or coffee is plenty for me. Honestly, in the huge scheme of things, it’s just not that bad. I eat healthy in every other area, so I consider my 3/4 teaspoon (approx.) of raw sugar pretty safe.
This is for Kerry Le Blanc. When I first tried Stevia in the Raw, I had the same reaction but a week later went back to it and wondered what in the ? had happened, it was fine. No bitter aftertaste at all, it was sweet enough (although I had to start out using two packets). The longer you use it, the less you need and the sweeter it tastes, so give it another try. I also tried Truvia and PureVia. I now prefer Stevia in the Raw.
The people who make Stevia In The Raw should be in prison for fraud, at least to me anyway there is nothing sweet about it, I generally wind up putting a tablespoon or two of fructose just to make a little sweet, my advice to the company just pull it off the shelf.
i tried to switch to truvia in my coffee, as a way to cut the minimal amount of sugar i take in each day. it tasted so gross to me, it was bitter and a very obvious off putting after taste. i added a single use packet to a very large mug. needless to saym i tossed it out and went back to the single tsp of sugar. im not fan fan of alternativve sweeteners for this reason.