Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The TRUvia about STEVIA

My first experience with Stevia was when I was a freshman or sophomore in college and volunteered at the Green Festival in Washington, DC. There, many vendors were giving out free samples of this herb-based sweetener and others were sampling teas sweetened with it. I was intrigued and thought it tasted pretty good, but soon forgot about it since it wasn't being marketed heavily at the time. 

Fast forward five+ years and now Stevia is everywhere (also goes by the names: Truvia, Sun Crystals, Rebiana, Zevia, PureVia, Sweet Leaf, and others). About four years ago the FDA approved highly purified rebaudioside A as safe and suitable for use in food and beverages. Stevia is being advertised as a sugar substitute (100-300x sweeter than sugar) that is all natural, zero calories, and healthy. The product has been consumed in South America for centuries and many food manufacturers in Japan have been using the product in beverages and foods like pickles since the 1970s. In the US, the sweetener has been sold in health food and natural medicine stores in supplement form (not approved by the FDA), many of which claim to aid in weight loss, treat heartburn, obesity, hypertension, and may aid in glucose tolerance (so targeted toward diabetics).

Prior to the FDA approving the product as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), there was some debate as to whether the sweetener was safe because of possible negative effects on reproduction, cancer, and energy metabolism. However, in the past few years enough research has been done to conclude that the purified product is safe in the average quantities consumed, and there is no need to be concerned. 

Most recent studies have had similar conclusions: "The conclusion is that Stevia and stevioside are safe when used as a sweetener. It is suited for both diabetics, and PKU patients, as well as for obese persons intending to lose weight by avoiding sugar supplements in the diet. No allergic reactions to it seem to exist." (2)
"This paper summarizes the information used to conclude that high purity rebaudioside A (rebiana) produced to food-grade specifications and according to Good Manufacturing Practices is safe for human consumption under its intended conditions of use as a general purpose sweetener." (3)

My recommendation: Use Stevia as a zero-calorie sweetener if you like the taste and are opposed to other non-caloric sweetening agents. Just don't over-use.... try not to consume more than 3 packs/day (although the upper limit for safety is MUCH higher).

1. Food and Drug Administration (1995, rev 1996, 2005). Import Alert #45-06: "Automatic Detention of Stevia Leaves, Extract of Stevia Leaves, and Food Containing Stevia"
2. Geuns, J.M.C., 2003. Molecules of interest: Stevioside. Phytochemistry 64, 913-921.
3.  Carakostas, M.C.; Curry, L.L.; Boileau, A.C.; Brusick, D.J.  Overview: the history, technical function and safety of rebaudioside A, a naturally occurring steviol glycoside, for use in food and beverages.  Food Chem. Toxicol.  (in press, 2008).
4. http://www.stevia.com/

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