Stevia--Sweet or Bitter Choice
For years researchers have sought the holy grail of sweeteners, a sugar replacement that won't add girth to the hips or pounds to the torso. This quest has been motivated more than ever now that America has 60 million obese adults and 20 million diabetics, and there are 75 million Americans with a higher than normal blood glucose level.
The goal of sweetness nirvana seemed within reach when stevia was introduced in this country in the 1970's, but a tug of war has ensued since then. On one side is the FDA insisting there are health problems revolving around this food additive; on the opposing side are its disciples who deny the negative health claims and extol its benefits.
It's 150 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and contains zero carbs and zero calories and has a glycemic index of, you guessed it, zero. And it's not formulated in a laboratory as a chemical creation. An herb that grows naturally wild in Paraguay and Brazil, Stevia Rebaudiana has been used by native peoples as a beverage sweetener for centuries.
Stevia classed as food supplement
In 1995 The Food and Drug Administration issued an alert that said, "If stevia is to be used in a dietary supplement for a technical effect, such as use as a sweetener or flavoring agent, and is labeled as such, it is considered an unsafe food additive. However, in the absence of labeling specifying that stevia is being or will be used for technical effect, use of stevia as a dietary ingredient in a dietary supplement is not subject to the food additive provisions of the Food Drug and Cosmetics Act."
FDA zings Zingers
In a statement Hain Celestial Group said the FDA agreed that the company could change the products' labels to reflect that they are supplements and not food. The first question a consumer should ask is, " Does changing the label make the product less dangerous to the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems?" As Congressman Dan Burton pointed out in his letter to the FDA, "I find the agency's treatment of stevia baffling. It is safe as a dietary supplement but unsafe as a food additive."
In her article "A Tale of Two Sweeteners Aspartame & Stevia," nutritionist Gail Davis extols the virtues of stevia:
CSPI reports animal studies
When male rats were fed high doses of stevioside, sperm production dropped, the weight of seminal vessels for seminal fluid production fell, and cell proliferation increased. Cell proliferation can cause infertility. Female hamsters fed large amounts of steviol, a derivative of stevioside, had fewer and smaller babies.
Steviol can be converted into a mutagenic compound in animal testing in the laboratory. This compound can promote cancer by causing mutations in the cells' DNA. Researchers admit that they don't know if humans convert stevioside to steviol. Large amounts of stevioside can interfere with carbohydrate absorption in animals and can hamper the conversion of food into energy within the cells. "This may be of particular concern for children," says toxicologist Ryan Huxtable of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
In response to reports that there have been no adverse reactions to stevia in Japan the last 30 years, Douglas Kinghorn says, "The Japanese don't consume large amounts of stevia." Kinghorn is a professor of pharmacognosy (study of drugs from plants) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Huxtable notes, "In the U.S. we like to go to extremes. So a significant number of people here might consume much greater amounts."
Stevia goes bigtime in Asia
Although stevia was originally found growing in Paraguay, almost 80% of world's crop today comes from China. Because of great demand in Asia, China has embraced this crop and began allocating large acreage to its production. Ironically, China can grow only one crop each year, while Paraguay is able to harvest stevia three or four times each year.
Quite disturbing are charges that the anti-stevia campaign is being promoted by sugar and chemical companies that stand to lose market share if stevia gains approval as a food additive. In "The Bittersweet Story of the Stevia Herb'' in the February/March 2003 issue of NEXUS Magazine, Jenny Hawke tells of a trade complaint registered with the FDA in the late 1980's about a tea containing stevioside being sold by Celestial Seasonings. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Stevia.net obtained a copy of the memorandum, but the complainant names were deleted by the FDA to protect the informant's identity.
FDA overzealous in enforcement
Looming on the horizon is Rebiana, the trade name of a calorie-free food and beverage sweetener derived from stevia. Rebiana is a joint effort of Coca-Cola and Cargill. This joint venture will try to obtain approval of Rebiana as a food additive in the United States by 2009. They plan to market stevia-sweetened products in 12 countries that allow stevia as a food additive. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola and Cargill are conducting their own studies to facilitate regulatory approval in the United States and the European Union.
On its own, Cargill announced on May 15, 2008 its campaign to market Truvia that is made from rebiana, a part of the stevia leaf. The company claims Truvia is a no-calorie, natural sweetener for foods and beverages.
Jim May, founder of Wisdom Natural Brands who helped introduce stevia to this country and whose company is the leading U.S. producer, feels it won't be long before stevia gains regulatory approval. "And when it's finally accepted as a sweetener, the health of Americans will substantially improve," May says.
Americans face a dilemma
All of us need to admit we are addicted to sugar. It's in so many foods we eat, not just desserts but even where you least expect it, like a can of kidney beans. The quest for sweet has led us down the obesity and diabetes road. But as we are learning with artificial sweeteners, there is no magic bullet. We need to recognize that we can avoid calories by not using sugar, but when we substitute stevia or artificial sweeteners some of us may also encounter side effects or drawbacks that impact our health.
One fear we have is that a large company like Cargill will have their laboratory researchers take this simple plant leaf and manipulate it to create a sweetener that is really alien to the human body. What they call stevia may turn out to be some type of frankenfood that may be labeled natural but could be harmful.
Because stevia is an herb and not a drug, there is no giant pharmaceutical company to spend the millions for research and promotion. If this natural sweetener has all of the qualities its proponents claim, let's find out by having the National Institutes of Health fund an impartial study to determine its safety. Until that happens we all need to proceed cautiously and use stevia in moderation--if at all.
Bilger, Burkhard. "The Search for Sweet." New Yorker, May 22, 2006
Davis, Gail. "A Tale of Two Sweeteners: Aspartame & Stevia." http://www.vegsource.com/davis/sweeteners.htm
De Guzman, Doris. "Sugar Substitutes: How Sweet It Is." ICIS Chemical Business Americas, July 9, 2007
FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Warning Letter [The Hain Celestial Group, Inc.]" August 17, 2007 http://www.fda.gov/foi/warning_letters/s6500c.htm
Hawke, Jenny. "The Bittersweet Story of Stevia." Nexus Magazine, February-March, 2003
Henkel, John. "Sugar Substitutes: Americans Opt for Sweetness and Lite." FDA Consumer, November-December 1999; Revised December 2004 and February 2006
Moloughney, Sean. "Natural Ingredients Sweeten the Market for Sugar Substitutes: Growing Public Concern about Overall Health Has Opened the Door for Natural Alternatives to Sucrose and Chemical Substitutes." Nutraceuticals World, April 2008
Schardt, David. "Stevia: a Bittersweet Tale." Nutrition Action Health Letter, April 2000