Stevia: Natural Sugar Alternative or Toxic Chemical?

The other day I was at the grocery store in the yogurt section.

stevia sugars natural alternativeUsually I’ll just throw a bunch of Greek yogurts in our cart; I like plain, Kara prefers coconut and the girls like all of it.  By the way, mix any of them with peanut butter and they are DELISH.  Like peanut butter and jelly.

I digress.

A woman comes up next to me and is picking out some yogurts as well.  She starts reading the labels and I guess she wanted me to hear, so she was reading outloud.

She picked one up "Sucralose? That’s junky."  Picked up another and said "Stevia," and then turned to her daughter and said "good, this one is natural and only 100 calories, we’ll get this."

The first question, what is "natural?"  What does that even mean?

In the nutrition world, nothing.  Really.

In our heads it’s a lovely, romantic story about how a food isn’t processed at all or "tainted" by any other hands, outside of the farmer who only uses organic practices and probably waters it with filtered, pH balanced water. 

But that’s far from the truth.

"Natural" has zero significance when it comes to food.  The FDA has not defined what it actually means, though the term is thrown around on food labels, usually on products that look wholesome and pure.  We’ve seen natural products laden with preservatives. 

Let’s take a step back with stevia — often viewed as the holy grail of sugar alternatives — and take a look at this popular alternative to "artificial sweeteners."

It comes from the sweet tasting leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana bertoni plant, native to Central and South America. 

There are certain components within the leaf – stevioside and rebaudioside A (reb A)) – that provide most of its sweetness.  In fact, stevia is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.  You’ll most commonly see it in stores under the names Truvia, PureVia, Stevia in the Raw, Sweet Leaf and Sun Crystals.

When first introduced to the market, it had to be labeled as a dietary supplement because it didn’t quite have what’s called "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) status, which is the only way it can be sold as a food.  So you could initially only find it as a dietary supplement.  However, in 2008 this changed and after reviewing the available data, the FDA has granted Stevia GRAS status and it’s in the brands listed above as well as in several products themselves, from yogurt to soft drinks, protein powders and more. 

But this FDA approval certainly didn’t come without controversy.

Folks at the Center for Science in Public Interest and several renowned toxicologists from UCLA aren’t quite on board with widespread distribution and use, pointing to data that show DNA damage and mutations, which could raise the risk of developing cancer.  These studies have been done in animals, but these groups suggest a little more concern is certainly warranted, given the tens of millions of people who will be using stevia liberally.

Outside of potential health concerns, the flavor leaves a bit to be desired.

Stevia itself has a bitter aftertaste that we’re not fans of in the Mohr house.  That being said, we have tasted a few protein powders that use it that don’t have that same bitter taste.

Our stance? 

First, getting back to the question "is stevia natural" — no.

The loosely defined natural word to us would mean you are eating the actual leaf of the plant.  And you can do that; one vendor at our local Farmer’s Market sold it by the plant.  Keep in mind, though, while this has a hint of sweetness, it’s nothing like the end product, isolated from the isolated components of the leaf described above.

The highly concentrated sweetener alternative – Stevia – is not natural in the form it’s sold.

Our preference for sweetening foods are local honey from our farmers market and pure maple syrup (and no, Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin aren’t pure or aren’t real maple syrup).  Both of these are also sweeter than traditional table sugar and have unique flavors in and of themselves.

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Leave 25+ comments below and we’ll be back tomorrow with another blog about Monk Fruit Sweetener, the newest darling in the "natural foods" world.


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