Stevia FAQ: What’s Next for the Sugar Substitute?

July 30, 2010

in Health News

Post image for Stevia FAQ: What’s Next for the Sugar Substitute?

By Elizabeth Lee
Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

What is stevia?

Stevia rebaudiana is a shrub native to South America. Its leaves have been used there for centuries to sweeten beverages. Stevia is sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement — a category that gets little regulatory scrutiny. Those supplements are often used as a tabletop sweetener, although the FDA does not allow companies to promote them for that use. Stevia-sweetened Zevia, a diet drink, also bills itself as a dietary supplement.

The FDA had banned the use of stevia as a food additive or ingredient, including as a sweetener, because of safety concerns. In December 2008, the FDA  reviewed notices from Cargill Inc.and approved these sweeteners in a category called “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. The science meets with FDA approval allowing stevia-based sweeteners such as Truvia and PureVia to be used as a sweetener in foods.

Stevia is now approved as a food additive in 12 countries, including Japan, where it has been used for more than three decades, Brazil and China. The European Food Safety Association’s opinion is in line with that of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the FDA, approving stevia extracts with at least 95% purity of steviol glycosides as safe.

What are Truvia and PureVia?

These are the brand names for sweeteners that use a component of the stevia leaf called rebaudioside A.

How do Truvia and PureVia differ from stevia?

Because Truvia and PureVia only use a component of the stevia leaf, the FDA considers them to be different. That means it could allow companies to use rebaudioside-A-based sweeteners (purified from S. rebaudiana) such as PureVia and Truvia in foods, but not permit that use for other stevia-based sweeteners.

Are there other stevia extracts on the market?

Wisdom Natural Foods is selling SweetLeaf Sweetener online and introducing it to stores. The company believes the sweetener fits the FDA guidelines for foods generally recognized as safe, according to its web site. SweetLeaf contains 98% steviol glycosides, according to the web site.

Health food stores and herbal stores have sold forms of stevia since the 1970s. And fresh stevia leaves can be found at many farmers markets.

Are they artificial sweeteners?

Stevia-based sweeteners are considered natural because they are made with plant extracts and have zero calories yet are as much as 100 times sweeter than sucrose or table sugar.

Are these new sweeteners safe?

The companies seeking to sell the products say they are safe. Studies published in May in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology conclude that a purified extract of rebaudioside A does not cause reproductive or developmental problems in rats. The journal also published other studies funded by Cargill and the Coca-Cola Company that showed Truvia did not affect blood sugar in people with diabetes or impact blood pressure in healthy people. Those studies addressed regulatory agencies’ wishes for additional research to clear up lingering concerns from previous studies.

In April 2010, an Evidence-Based Systematic Review of Stevia was conducted by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration confirming its safety.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, is asking for more testing on rebaudioside The group is concerned about previous stevia studies that pointed to cell mutation, says Michael Jacobson, the group’s executive director. It also wants tests conducted on one other animal species, such as mice.

When will these sweeteners be available?

Truvia is already in most U.S. markets. The Coca-Cola Company is working with Cargill on Truvia and is using the sweetener in beverages. Whole Earth Sweetener Company, which makes PureVia, is available as a  tabletop sweetener. PepsiCo, which will manufacture beverages and foods produced with PureVia, is selling SoBe Life Water.

What other ingredients do these sweeteners contain?

PureVia contains erythritol, a sugar alcohol; isomaltulose, a sugar substitute that contains glucose and fructose; reb A; cellulose powder; and natural flavor.

Truvia contains erythritol, rebiana, and natural flavors.

Where do the stevia leaves come from?

Most are grown in China.

Can these sweeteners be used in baking?

Not yet. Substituting for sugar in baked goods involves replacing sugar’s volume as well as its browning/caramelizing abilities. Cargill is testing a baking formulation but it is not on the market. Whole Earth Sweeteners recommends using PureVia in hot and cold drinks or sprinkled on foods that won’t be cooked, such as cereal, fruit, or yogurt.

How much do they cost?

Suggested retail for a 40-count box is $3.99 for PureVia and Truvia. Each packet offers the sweetness in two teaspoons of sugar. A 50-count box of SweetLeaf is $6.99.

How does stevia compare with other sugar substitutes?

Aspartame

What is it: Two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine; and methanol. Brand names are Equal and NutraSweet.

How it’s used: Equal tabletop sweetener, diet soft drinks such as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, some sugar-free desserts including gelatin desserts, yogurt, and puddings.

Advantages: Tastes similar to sugar. Enhances sweet flavors, especially fruit flavors.

Drawbacks: Should not be consumed by those with phenylketonuria (PKU). Controversy continues about whether aspartame is linked to increased cancer rates. Government agencies say it is safe. A recent study from an Italian cancer institute found more lymphomas and leukemia in rats fed very large amounts of aspartame. The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding it and is calling for more testing. Loses sweetness at high temperatures, making it a poor choice for baked goods.

Saccharin

What is it: Benzoic sulfinide.

How it’s used: Sweet’N Low tabletop sweetener, Tab diet cola, salad dressings, baked goods, canned fruit.

Advantages: Less expensive than other artificial sweeteners. Stable at high temperatures, so can be used for baking. Passes through the body unaltered.

Drawbacks: After studies in the early 1970s linked saccharin consumption tobladder cancer in rats, all food containing saccharin was required to carry a warning label. But studies in humans showed no consistent evidence that saccharin causes bladder cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The warning label is no longer required. The Center for Science in the Public Interest advises avoiding saccharin because of studies that link it to cancer in rodents.

Acesulfame-K, or Ace-K

What is it? Acetoacetic acid and the mineral potassium.

How it’s used: Usually in gums, confections, cough drops, and carbonated andalcoholic beverages, often in combination with another sweetener. Also sold as Sunett or Sweet One.

Advantages: Extends shelf life of diet drinks. Can be used for cooking and baking. Not metabolized or absorbed by the body.

Drawbacks: Government health agencies say it is safe. The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest advises avoiding it and has asked the FDA to require more tests. Can taste bitter on its own; better tasting when blended with other sweeteners.

Sucralose

What is it? A sugar molecule chemically altered by replacing three hydroxyl groups with three atoms of chlorine.

How it’s used: Splenda tabletop sweetener and baking products. Also in yogurt, fruit juices, ice cream, dairy products, some diet beverages and flavored waters, sometimes combined with Ace-K.

Advantages: The least controversial artificial sweetener. Consumer groups have not raised the safety concerns with sucralose that they have with other sweeteners. Can be used in baked goods more readily than other artificial sweeteners. No effect on blood sugar levels.

Drawbacks: Although better suited for baking than other artificial sweeteners, still not a perfect substitute for sugar.

Neotame

What is it? A derivative of a combination of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine.

How it’s used: Flavor enhancer for other ingredients, such as mint. In some store-brand juices and gums.

Advantages: More stable than aspartame, meaning a better fit for baked goods. Although it shares some ingredients with aspartame, neotame has not prompted the same safety concerns with consumer groups. It does not carry a warning label for those with PKU.

Drawbacks: Rarely used.

Stevia

What is it: Extract from the stevia plant.

How it’s used: Dietary supplement and tabletop sweetener.

Advantages: Natural sweetener.

Drawbacks: Stevia has not been approved as a food additive or an ingredient that is generally recognized as safe. Purified extracts from the sweet components of the stevia leaf, which are considered different from stevia itself or from crude extracts of the plant, have been generally recognized as safe by the  FDA . Truvia, a Cargill tabletop sweetener made from the purified stevia glycoside rebaudioside A, is on the market.

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