Stevia – The Sweetest Thing?

by Dave on August 22, 2009

by Lisa Harkins, RD

Have you noticed there are some new sweeteners on the supermarket shelves lately? Where before my clients would ask me about NutraSweet and Splenda, they are now asking me about Stevia. It is interesting to note that with the adoption of the “green” movement and organic foods, people are turning away from the old stand-bys, i.e. the pink, yellow and blue packets, for these newer, “natural” upstarts like Truvia and Pure Via. But are they any better for you? The jury’s out.

Stevia is a South American plant that has been used to sweeten foods and beverages for hundreds of years, and can be found in health foods stores in extract form as a liquid or powder. (Note – these products, like Stevita and Puritan’s Pride Stevia Powder are sold as supplements and not regulated by the FDA). Stevia’s two main compounds, rebiana (or rebaudioside A) and stevioside are 200 times sweeter than cane sugar and essentially calorie-free. These derivatives have been isolated and produced into a powder and are now distributed in mainstream markets as Coke’s Truvia, Pepsi’s Pure Via, and SweetLeaf.

Some studies have shown that Stevia, and in particular its derivative stevioside, has been linked to reproductive problems, as well as DNA damage (which could possibly lead to cancer) in rats. Another issue for some consumer-protection groups is the fact that rebiana has not been tested on mice (the FDA normally requires food additives to be tested for two years on rats AND mice), and that an intermediary product (steviol) that is produced from rebiana during the digestive process has been shown to be carcinogenic.

Another product, “Sun Crystals” states it’s made with sugar cane and Stevia and has 5 calories per packet. It is unclear whether or not this product by McNeil (the makers of Splenda) is produced using the Stevia plant itself or the derivatives rebiana and stevioside. At this time of writing I have an email out to the company. I have tried the Sun Crystals product and find it to be very sweet (use sparingly!) but tastes much more like sugar then the artificial sweeteners Equal, Sweet N’ Low, or Splenda. Some individuals find Stevia sweeteners to be a bit bitter, especially in liquid extract form.

Bottom line: Products containing the Stevia derivative stevioside MAY cause cancer (in large amounts), and rebiana has not been sufficiently researched to determine safety. But these products ARE on the market, and it is up to you the consumer to decide whether or not to consume them. Controversy has always surrounded artificial sweeteners, but overall they have shown to be especially helpful to diabetics as they manage their blood sugars, and for individuals trying to lose weight. Experts agree that small amounts shouldn’t pose a significant health risk, it’s overconsumption over a long period of time where stevioside or rebiana could cause problems. As for me? A packet of Sugar in the Raw sweetens my tea just right in the AM. I prefer to stay as chemical-free as possible, even from so-called “natural” products.

Lisa Harkins is a clinical registered dietitian with Bayhealth Medical Centers and the owner of Ideal Nutrition and Fitness LLC (www.idealnutritionandfitness.com). You can reach her at lisa -at- idealnutritionandfitness.com.

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, July 2, 2009.

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