Stevia: A Natural Sweetener?
Written by Sejal Dave, MS, RD/LD, CDE
Published in July 2009
(HealthCastle.com) Stevia has been around for ages - centuries, actually. Now, stevia is being marketed as a new and improved sweetener - or, rather, a pure and true one, as the brand names PureVia and Truvia suggest. These products contain Rebiana (also known as RebA), the "sweetest" part of the stevia leaf.
A Bit of Stevia's History
Stevia is a calorie-free sweetener that was discovered in Paraguay, South America. The natives
of Paraguay used the leaves of the stevia plant in their meals to sweeten traditional foods and
drinks such as mate (a bitter tea-like beverage).
In the twentieth century, French researchers identified steviol glycosides (such as RebA) as being responsible for the characteristic sweet taste of the stevia plant. In recent years, stevia-based sweeteners have been available in several countries in South America and around the world, where they have generally been used in to sweeten sodas and candy. In the US and Canada, however, stevia was historically sold as a dietary supplement rather than a sweetening agent. But that has recently changed: in December 2008, stevia was given the thumbs-up to be used as a sweetener by the FDA. It is now considered GRAS (generally regarded as safe) and is quickly increasing in popularity among food manufacturers.
Where Can You Find Stevia?
In the past, stevia-derived sweeteners, in powder and liquid form, were limited to being sold in health food stores. Now, products like PureVia and Truvia are available at Walmart, Whole Foods stores, and directly online. PureVia, which is affiliated with PepsiCo, has already launched a line of stevia-based drinks called SoBe Life Waters. Truvia is manufactured, in part, by Coca-Cola, which may mean that new calorie-free beverages are just around the corner. Both PureVia and Truvia are sold in packets that can be easily taken along with you. Also, similar to other sweeteners on the market (like Splenda and Equal) Truvia is heat stable so it can be used for baking and cooking.
What the Naysayers Say
Critics, however, are not excited about stevia's approval. They suggest that stevia given the
thumbs-up by the FDA in an effort to please the food service industry. Companies like Cargill and
PepsiCo have a vested interest in stevia and have moved quickly to launch stevia-containing
beverages. Is this a coincidence? Despite FDA approval, there's controversy about the lack of
research that's been done to investigate the possible long-term side effects of stevia on consumer
health. The Center for Science
in the Public Interest, in particular, has raised concerns that stevia may cause DNA damage.
Is Stevia Appropriate for People with Diabetes?
Stevia does not have an impact on blood glucose levels. It has zero carbohydrates or calories,
and can be used as a sugar substitute or alternative sugar sweetener as part of a
healthy diabetes meal plan.
The Bottom Line
Now that the FDA has given stevia the green light, stevia-based products
are popping up everywhere. They offer yet another option to people with
diabetes looking for low-sugar foods and beverages. Whether you are trying
to manage your diabetes or just looking for a low-sugar product, it's best to
stick to natural whole foods and consume fewer packaged foods.