THE SWEET LIFE
The Bitter Truth About Stevia: It Ain’t ‘Natural’
Stevia is the hot new, “natural” sweetener. But the truth is, no one has researched it enough for it to be considered truly safe.
If people aren’t putting butter in their coffee these days to try to stay slim, chances are they are still sweetening it—with stevia.
This South American, zero calorie, 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, “all natural” sweetener—which played a pivotal role in the Breaking Bad series finale (Walter poisons the chamomile tea of Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, the supplier of methylamine for Gus, at a café by switching stevia with ricin)—is on pace to become the most consumed sweetener by 2017.
Rest assured, stevia has stolen the spotlight from its artificial and natural sweetener competitors at the coffee shop: Equal (aspartame), Splenda (sucralose), Sweet ‘n Low (saccharin), and its hipster, health rival, Sugar in the Raw (sucrose or table sugar with a coating of molasses—it’s not any healthier).
But this is old news.
What isn’t news these days regards how rapidly we’ve forgotten its direct connection to big food and beverage companies and how a 2008 UCLA toxicology report found it causes mutagenic cellular changes in lab rats—when given high dosages.
Everything in moderation, right?
While further studies have shown stevia to cause no harm—and even help glucose tolerance (a good thing for diabetics)—health experts urge people to use it with caution since there are no long term studies on its effects on human consumption.
Since the FDA approved stevia and deemed it “Generally Recognized As Safe,” or GRAS, in 2008, sales have soared—most likely because it has developed a reputation as being a healthy alternative to artificial sweeteners.
But it’s far from being natural.
Be it Coke’s Truvia, Pepsi’s PureVia, or Wisdom Natural Brand’s SweetLeaf, they all are stevia. Specially, these products are the result of an extraction process from a specific species of the stevia plant—stevia rebaudiana—from which the active compounds rebaudioside and stevioside are extracted and isolated.
We have forgotten, however, how companies like Coca Cola hold a patent to make it and can get away with calling it stevia even though they should really call it “rebaudioside and stevioside sweetener.”
Sound natural and authentic to you?
Marketing has done a heck of a job making us believe stevia is a natural product and different, if not better, than the artificial sweeteners. In reality, it's a very processed substance and is just as adulterated and “lab created” as all other artificial sweeteners.
The extraction process involves myriad steps, and the Coca Cola company owns a patent to make its version of stevia. So it’s no coincidence, however, that an agriculture company like Cargill (and Coca Cola), lobbied the FDA hard in 2008 to approve stevia, giving them the green light to sell their respected stevia extracts for their products like Coca Cola Life.
“I guess the FDA must have resolved its doubts about the science supporting the safety of stevia, even though much of it was corporate-sponsored,” Dr. Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, and author of several food and nutrition books, wrote on her blog in 2008. “But CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) still has doubts,”
Nestle doesn’t endorse stevia in her book What to Eat.
Marketed as natural, herbal, and with a romantic twist, given the plant’s connection to ancient South American medicinal practices, stevia’s promoters boast an imagery that is organic, quasi-spiritual, and unprocessed. Some would argue it falls within the “super food” category—an unnecessary, yet very real marketing ploy to draw attention to certain foods’ almost magical powers.
Time heals all wounds, but in stevia's case, time helps us forgot that stevia is a chemically extracted substance. “With little long-term outcomes data available on the plant extract, it is possible that stevia in large quantities could have harmful effects,” wrote Natalie Digate Muth on her blog in 2011 for the American Council of Exercise.
So although it’s 300 times sweeter than sugar, the dark truth about stevia is that it could lead to an uncertain and bitter fate. If I were you, I’d stick to sugar.