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About Stevia Sweetener - Is It Better Than Sugar? Should You Try It?

Data Is Promising, But Limited in Scope

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Updated September 29, 2009

Stevia Plant

Stevia Plant

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Stevia is a type of plant that has very sweet leaves. These leaves have been used to sweeten drinks and as a sugar substitute in Central and South America (as well as Texas, Arizona and New Mexico). For centuries, tribes in Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia have used stevia leaves to sweeten teas and traditional medicines. Stevia extract can be 300 times sweeter than sugar (compared to Splenda, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar). The more compelling thing (potentially) about stevia is that it does not impact blood sugar levels. In other words, it is a very low-calorie sweetener and may be advantageous to diabetics.

The Taste of Stevia

Before we get into the health effects and other issues around stevia, let’s cut to the chase: How does stevia taste? Well, to find out, I did my own semi-scientific stevia taste test. My results agree with the general consensus that stevia, when compared to sugar, takes longer for the “sweet” flavor to kick in and the sweet flavor lasts longer. Some brands of stevia seem to have an aftertaste that is licorice or slightly minty. The aftertaste is not, in itself, unpleasant; but it may interact with other flavors to produce an odd taste.

Is Stevia Safe?

In the 1980s, multiple studies came out that pointed to possible health risks associated with stevia. One study found that as stevia broke down in the body, one of the components could cause cancer. Additionally studies showed mixed results. In 2008, a series of studies came out reviewing past studies concerning stevia that seemed safe. The main finding (that led to an FDA declaration of “no objection”) was that a specific compound in stevia (Rebaudioside A, see below for more information) had no safety risks linked to it. It should be noted, however, that some of these studies received funding from Cargill, a company interested in making a stevia-derived sugar substitute.

Stevia Health Benefits

More good news for stevia came when a few studies (again, often sponsored by the industry) showed that stevia-derived sweeteners not only taste sweet, but also may help individuals improve insulin production (which in turn would help with diabetes) and even help with hypertension (high blood pressure). Of course, not enough is known about stevia's effects to know whether this is indeed true, but you will see these studies frequently mentioned on stevia websites.

Bottom line: Right now, there is certainly not enough data to conclude anything about using stevia to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis or anything else. Be careful when reading research on stevia. Some studies use different types of plants, different extraction methods and different parts of the plants than others, making it difficult to compare data across studies.

Stevia and Antioxidants

Stevia is an antioxidant. Antioxidants help your body fight off the damage caused by free radicals (and limiting free radical aging). Stevia, as with all plants, contains a number of antioxidants. This puts stevia (assuming it is safe) way ahead of other sweeteners which contain no such beneficial antioxidants.

The Politics of Stevia

Here’s where it gets complicated. Stevia has been approved for some time in Japan, China, Israel, and elsewhere. But in the U.S., stevia has not been fully approved (although some types of stevia-derived sweeteners are approved). There was a study in the late 1980s that led to stevia being banned by the FDA unless labeled as a supplement (and banned in Europe as well). The FDA has had to crack down on a few companies trying to sell stevia as a food additive instead of a supplement. These crackdowns have led to blogs and articles complaining about the FDA protecting the sugar industry through preventing stevia. This was the status of stevia until late 2008.

Rebiana: Stevia Gets Approved (Sort Of)

Rebiana is the name of a zero-calorie sweetener made from stevia. More specifically, Rebiana is made from steviol glycoside rebaudioside A (Reb-A). This is, in essence, an extract from a specific part of the stevia plant. In late 2008, the FDA issued a “no objection” letter to Rebiana being used as a food additive. Keep in mind that this “no objection” to Rebiana does not mean that all stevia extracts have been approved by the FDA, only Rebiana and other stevia extracts that meet the criteria of extraction mentioned in the FDA documents.

Truvia and PureVia

Truvia and PureVia[/link"> are the names of sweeteners used that contain Rebiana (Reb-A). Coke and Pepsi have new drinks that have these natural sweeteners in them such as Sprite Green, SoBe Lifewater, Trop 50 and other drinks.

Bottom Line on Stevia

Stevia is a sweetener and does a good job at making things sweet. It has a distinct taste, so try it first before you buy it in bulk. As far as safety goes, only Rebiana has been approved by the FDA. The FDA and similar commissions in Europe continue to ban stevia in foods. The reason Rebiana has been approved is because it is a highly purified form of stevia. For the time being, the FDA says “stay away from stevia in foods, except Rebiana.” As for the healing powers of stevia, consider all the hype at this time. There just aren’t that many convincing studies that stevia improve diabetes, hypertension or other illnesses.

Read More: How Sugar Ages You

Sources:

Overview: The history, technical function and safety of rebaudioside A, a naturally occurring steviol glycoside, for use in food and beverages Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 46, Issue 7, Supplement 1, July 2008, Pages S1-S10. M.C. Carakostas, L.L. Curry, A.C. Boileau, D.J. Brusick

"FDA Approves 2 New Sweeteners". The New York Times (Associated Press). 17 December 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/18/business/18sweet.html.

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