Stevia: Safe or Sorry?

Many of you who follow my blog or Nourishing Gurus facebook page know that I don’t advocate any type of artificial sweeteners. My reasons are many and varied. I prefer to promote the use of small amounts of natural sweeteners such as raw honey, 100% pure maple syrup, coconut sugar/syrup and yacon syrup. But what about stevia?

Stevia bombarded the commercial market after it gained FDA approval in 2008 (more on that below), and can now be found in a multitude of food products from yogurts and cereals to drinks, protein bars and protein powders. Stevia is clearly a growing commodity; according to The World Health Organization it’s on the fast track to replace at least 30% of all dietary sweeteners. According to Packaged Facts of the U.S, the 2012 world stevia market, retail and wholesale, was somewhere between $800 million and $2 billion. WOW that’s a huge and potentially scary market.

BUT IS STEVIA SAFE? The short answer is this – though pure stevia is perfectly safe, that is not the type found in 99% of the commercial products and packets (i.e. Truvia, PureVia).

First, some facts about the stevia plant. Stevia is a shrub native to Paraguay, used for over 1500 years by the native Guarani Indians. The stevia plant (sometimes called sweetleaf or sugarleaf), is known for the natural sweetness held in its leaves. Native Americans in these regions use the leaves of the plant to season teas and other foods. Pure stevia is about 30-40 times sweeter than sugar. This means that very little is needed to provide a sweet taste; in addition, it has no impact on blood sugar levels.

In the 1930s, chemists in France isolated stevioside (otherwise known as rebaudioside A), the compound in the leaves that is responsible for their sweetness.  Stevia is mainly sold in this highly refined form, not as whole leaf stevia but the isolated agent rebaudioside A or stevioside (or a combination of both).  In 2008, rebaudioside compounds that were derived from the stevia plant was approved by the FDA. This raised eyebrows as the approval was only put in place once Coca-Cola (Cargill) and PepsiCo became involved, AND only after it had been highly processed using a patentable chemical-laden process. In fact, Truvia (Coca-Cola’s branded product) goes through about 40 steps to process the extract from the leaf. Some of these processes involve chemicals such as acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol. To make matters worse, some of these chemicals are known carcinogens.

Oddly enough, the whole leaf stevia that has been used for centuries in countries like Brazil and Paraguay remains a non-approved food additive by the FDA. The refined form of rebaudioside A that was approved by the FDA has not been used for centuries and long term human health impacts have not been studied and are still unknown. Bah humbug to the FDA!

With that in mind, here are our recommendations:

Stevia products to avoid:

  • “Truvia,” which goes through a 40-step chemically patented process. Also contains erythritol. Though this is a naturally occurring sugar that is sometimes found in fruit, food manufacturers don’t actually use the natural stuff. Instead they start with genetically engineered corn and then go through a complex fermentation process to come up with chemically pure erythritol.
  • “Stevia  in the Raw” and “PureVia” contains dextrose, a sweetener that’s also derived from genetically engineered corn and has a long complicated manufacturing process, just like erythritol.
  • Any stevia product with added “natural flavors.” Often added to powdered and liquid stevia products, these are often included to try and mask the metallic or bitter taste that stevia can be known for. But these are unknown and dubious at best.
  • Sneaky  ingredients like agave, inulin, silica, etc.

Stevia products that get the thumbs up: Buy a stevia plant for your garden (which is legal) or purchase the pure dried leaves online. You can 

add fresh or dried leaves directly to teas or drinks, or grind up them up yourself for your own powdered stevia. Note that the straight leaves are 30-40 times sweeter than sugar, whereas the extract is over 200 times sweeter.

Alternatively, look for “whole leaf stevia” when choosing products already sweetened with stevia. The pure sweetener is made by crushing or distilling the leaves of the plant to form a powder or a syrup with an intensely sweet flavor.

As always, to keep those sugar cravings at bay, use as little sweetener as possible, even when it’s from a whole foods source. When you let those taste buds adjust to foods with less sweetness, it absolutely helps quell cravings and helps you appreciate all the other wonderful flavors in your recipe!

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