September 3, 2014

Stevia – the Sweetest Thing?

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.

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.