Stevia is one of the better known ‘natural’ alternatives to refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Stevia emerged in America in the mid 1980’s as a natural sweetener, but truly gained notoriety in 2007 when it was used by a leading soft drink company. It has once again been brought to the forefront of the sugar alternative discussion as it is being used as a replacement for high fructose corn syrup in new products by the two leading soft drink companies. Though stevia is marketed as being ‘naturally derived,’ is it a legitimate, safe alternative to refined sugar?
Stevia is an extract of the steviol glycosides of Stevia rebaudiana. A glycoside is a compound comprised of a simple sugar and another compound of which the hydroxyl (-OH) group has been replaced. Stevia rebaudiana has been used as a natural sweetener for over a thousand years by the Guaraní of modern day Brazil and Paraguay, which they called “ka’a he’ê” or sweet herb. Stevia is 150 times sweeter than sugar, though it has a slower onset and longer duration of sweetness. Stevia has a very low effect on blood sugar levels and has no calories. There are various derivatives that are generically marketed as stevia. The two primary steviol glycosides are stevioside (5-10% abundance), rebaudioside A (2-4%), rebaudioside C (1-2%), and dulcoside A (0.5 – 1%). Most commercial stevias a made of rebaudioside A. The human body metabolizes rebaudioside A by breaking it down into glucose and steviol, the steviol is then excreted from the body and the glucose is used by bacteria in the colon. Though stevia seems to be a viable alternative to refined sugar, is it safe? Just how natural is it?
Though ‘stevia’ is naturally derived from a plant, the process of how it is extracted from said plant is extremely important in determining how ‘natural’ it is. Also, the exact composition of the ‘stevia’ should be considered, being that there are multiple stevia derived products on the market simply branded as ‘Stevia.’ One of the popular ‘Stevia’ products on the market lists ‘stevia leaf extract’ as the second of three ingredients. Not only is this questionable marketing, it also makes it difficult to state that ‘stevia’ products are not hazardous or toxic, as stevia extract has been deemed, if it is blended with other ingredients and the specific chemical composition of the stevia are trade secrets.
Results for mutagencity and carcinogenicity on human and rodent subjects were negative, though there were low instances of genotoxicity and lowered testosterone levels in males (Saad et al. 2014). It should also be noted that Stevia (whole leaf or crude stevia extract) is not listed as ‘generally considered as safe’ by the FDA, which is likely why it is found with other ingredients as a sweetener. Steviol glycosides were approved for use in the European Union in November 2011. Though there is little evidence that true stevia extract is toxic, the same cannot be said for ‘stevia’ marketed products. The fact that ‘Stevia’ was only so recently approved for use in both the United States and European Union is reason enough to err on the side of caution, as there are various alternatives with clear safety records that can be used in place of refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Stevia based products are neither ‘friend’ or ‘foe’, but ‘distant associate.’
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