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Stevia — Hype or Hope?

Following up to the piece the other day about the safety of artificial sweeteners, time to cover another sweetener that comes from a plant and has made some serious waves in the nutrition market, as it’s commonly pitched as the "natural sweetener."  It’s Stevia.

Is IT the answer to shedding body fat healthfully?

Is it a safe alternative to Splenda and Equal?

OF COURSE — it’s natural!  

Hope you didn’t fall for that, did you? 

There a lot of "natural" herbs and other ingredients that we should probably stay away from.

Let’s find out the truth.

Stevia is a relatively new comer in terms of popularity, even though it’s been used for 100′s of years.  It’s exploded in the last few years as consumers are looking for a "natural" calorie free alternative to artificial sweeteners.

Stevia fits that bill.  Stevia’s real name is Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) and it is an herb native to Paraguay and Brazil.  

But, while it has been used for 100′s of year now, it has always been labeled a "dietary supplement" since it didn’t have the OK from the FDA as a food ingredient.

There were some concerns with Stevia after early studies suggested there may be some concern with its use with fertility and reproductive development and even genetic mutations!  Lo and behold, more recent data submitted to the FDA regarding the safety of a Stevia extract, known as Reb A, granted this particular extract GRAS status (generally recognized as safe).  This was in December 2008/

However, the FDA still maintained the position about calling Stevia at dietary supplement with this statement "Reb A is different than whole leaf stevia or other stevia extracts, which can only be sold as dietary supplements."  They continued "Nobody has provided the FDA with evidence that whole-leaf stevia is safe."

In fact, one consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) stands by their position that Reb A GRAS status was granted too early, suggesting not enough supportive safety data is available.

As usual, there are of course two sides to each story.  Let’s look at the pros and cons of this ingredient.

Pros:

  • Stevia is about 250-300 times sweeter than sugar
  • Stevia is stable to heat, making it safe for cooking
  • Stevia is calorie free
  • Stevia doesn’t promote dental caries like sugar

Cons:

  • It has a bitter taste that some may not enjoy, also making it difficult to include in large quantities (in baking, for example).
  • It’s more expensive than most other sweeteners
  • Data is mixed here – some show DNA damage with high doses of stevia intake, others show no effect at all.

From what we know now, the FDA considers Reb A safe…

If searching for this in the store, look for either "Truvia" and "PureVia" — the consumer names for the Stevia extract.

Or, you can maybe find a stevia plant, like I did, at our local farmers market. 

What do you think?  Is Stevia the next big thing in terms of sugar replacements?

 

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