So much to post, so little time. Well, gotta start somewhere, and although this is not anywhere near the top of my list of recent concerns, I happen to be thinking about it tonight.
We’ve all heard a lot about stevia lately. It’s a natural sweetener used for ages by South Americans and decades in Japan. It’s touted as a healthy sugar substitute, and indeed, it appears to be – from beneficial influences on diabetes and hypoglycemia to dental health to blood pressure regulation to obesity to osteoporosis. Like xylitol, it appears to retard the growth of oral bacteria associated with plaque and tooth decay. I’m not entirely sure how effective it is for these purposes, but one thing appears plausible: its general safety.
So, let’s all go out and get our stevia!
Wait a minute. You know that in the world of industry and processed foods, it could never be that simple, right? *smirk*
In 1931, a couple of French chemists isolated two glycosides that give stevia leaves their sweet flavor: stevioside and rebaudioside. Now, stevioside extract has been used in Japan for decades with no known ill effects. Stevia accounts for 40% of the sweetener market, according to wikipedia.
While not conclusive, it certainly inspires confidence. You can also use powdered forms of the whole leaf, although these apparently can taste more bitter and have a licorice-like aftertaste. However, this article has some helpful tips on how to be sure you’re purchasing high-quality stevioside, which should result in minimal aftertaste and bitterness. (The author of this article sells stevioside powder and therefore is not unbiased, but the information is compelling, anyhow.)
As stevioside is not a whole food product, I have questions regarding how it is extracted from the leaves – I read somewhere that it can be done chemically with ethanol or methanol. Ewww. But it can also be done with water extraction (score!). According to the article above, many producers add impurities such as fillers (starch), maltodextrin (to cut the bitter taste of lower-grade products), or even silica! Wow. Bet that’s not listed on the label.
Now let’s talk a little bit about rebaudioside. Rebaudioside-A is the form marketed as Truevia (a Coca-Cola product) and PureVia (a Pepsi Co. product). It is also called Reb-A and rebiana. Be aware that these products are not actually natural stevia! As is the case with the vast majority of processed foods, a natural product is modified and or extracted chemically, combined with other substances (in the case of PureVia, erythritol, a sugar alcohol used to cover up the bitter flavor, and “natural flavor,” which is basically a carte blanche from the FDA to add whatever the hell they want without having to disclose it) – and then, believe it or not, legally allowed to call their product “all natural.” You see, there is ZERO regulation on the use of the word “natural” in food marketing and labeling. I could shit in a jar, mix in some NutraSweet, and label it all natural. (Of course, it would, indeed, be “all natural” if I refrained from adding the chemicals to it… well, assuming I ate a natural diet, which is damn near impossible in the United States… which leads to another point – just cuz it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it’s something you want to put in or on your body.)
Studies suggest that Reb-A may have some effects OPPOSITE to stevioside – namely, that it may contribute to osteoporosis rather than help prevent/resolve it. The two compounds also behave differently in the body – they are metabolized at different rates. These are clearly not equivalent substances.
Even so, Reb-A appears to be a safer bet compared with artificial sweeteners like aspartame (NutraSweet) and sucralose (Splenda). At least Dr. Mercola thinks so. Personally, I am going to be on the lookout for a high-quality source of stevia leaf powder and/or stevioside extracted with water. Might I occasionally indulge in a Reb-A product? Sure… probably… but not if I have a choice between that and the forms I just mentioned.
Part of the reason I may not have the choice I just mentioned is due to the way the FDA operates. Hang on to your shorts, dear readers, this is another example of what’s wrong with the FDA and why they are not to be trusted.
Stevia – natural stevia – WHOLE stevia leaf, as well as stevioside – were banned as food additives in 2007, deemed “unsafe.” Despite 1500 years of use in parts of the world and decades in Japan, the FDA took it off the market in response to some research done on rats with exceptionally high amounts of Stevia (form unknown – I wouldn’t be surprised if the original research didn’t even bother to distinguish how the substance was processed or what additives might have been present – although I admit I haven’t looked up the studies to read them in detail).
Now, don’t get me wrong – if it was the way of the FDA to ensure reasonable safety prior to allowing foodstuffs on the market, that would be one thing. Except they are notoriously poor on this count. Take their recent stance on BPA as just one of numerous examples. The FDA historically have not had a problem allowing industry to use the population as guinea pigs whilst they take years to complete their analyses… they’d rather err on the side of the industries with powerful lobbies in Washington.
And this is what the stevia issue is ultimately about. Stevia is a natural substance. Therefore, it cannot be patented. Many believe (and I’m inclined to agree) that the banning of stevia was effectively a trade limitation presented to the artificial sweetener industry in a nice gift-wrapped package with a big ol’ bow on top. However, the irony comes in with the recognition that stevia has been available commercially since 2007. As a “supplement.” That means you can buy stevia by itself but not as a part of any food. And it can’t be marketed as a food or a sweetener. Interesting, no?
If you weren’t already aware, the FDA treats “food” and “supplements” completely differently, even though both are ingested. There are problems and blessings inherent in this huge inconsistency. The problem is that unscrupulous manufacturers can market and sell whatever they want to whomever they want for whatever reason – and not have to prove safety, bioavailability, or purity. But the flip side is that, currently, it is often the only way legitimate products that the FDA is trying to block for their own unscrupulous reasons, can be made available to the public. If you weren’t aware of this issue, you are now, and there is really only one thing to say: BUYER BEWARE.
But back to Reb-A – although the sweetener is NOT natural, NOT supported by long-term use, and in fact, chemically processed, the FDA considers it to be “safe” and has approved it as a food product.
So, this is why I may occasionally succumb to the temptation to consume Reb-A in it’s various forms. If I have a choice between (for example) a drink sweetened with NutraSweet and one sweetened with Reb-A, I’ll take my chances with Reb-A. Unlike coffee, most items bought in stores or ordered at a restaurant don’t come with an “unsweetened” option – and let’s face it, I’m not likely to carry around my shaker of water-extracted stevioside powder. I could be talked into it if I had the chance to substitute it for other sweeteners, but seeing as I’m not a coffee drinker, the action is of limited usefulness.
In short, I am happy to have either form of stevia available, as it appears a wise choice than more established, demonstratedly more toxic options. I am also quite content to use sugar alcohols occasionally, although extraction methods are also a concern with these natural substances. In our culture today, sometimes your choice is between uncertain and certainly worse.
Thanks to the authors of these articles, as well as those linked above: