FOOD, FACTS and FADS

Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Scoop on Stevia

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Stevia rebaudiana

Stevia rebaudiana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why Stevia?

The big soda companies are introducing two new low-calorie drinks, both using stevia as a sweetener. Look for a new green label on both products. In mid October, PepsiCo is coming out with Pepsi True and will only be available for now online at Amazon. Coca-Cola’s new product called Coca-Cola Life is already available in Argentina, Chile, Great Britain, and Mexico. In November, it will debut nationwide in the U.S. For now, it is only available in Georgia, Florida, and North and South Carolina.

Pepsi says its new soda will have 30% less sugar than regular Pepsi and has no high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Coke’s Life contains 60 calories, which is 35% fewer calories than other sodas.

According to WebMD, stevia is a natural, no-calorie sweetener derived from a South American plant.  Its prized species is Stevia rebaudiana that grows in Paraguay and Brazil where people have used leaves from the stevia bush to sweeten foods for centuries. Now it has entered the sugar substitute market. This market is growing.  According the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2012, just 18% of U.S. adults used low-or no-calorie sweeteners in 2000.  Now, 24% of adults and 12 % of children use sugar substitutes.

Stevia comes in tabletop green packets, liquid drops, dissolvable tablets, spoonable products, and baking blends. Some people report that stevia has a metallic aftertaste which could be a problem for many soda drinkers.  Stevia is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Is Stevia Safe?

The FDA does approve the use of a chemical, called Rebaudioside A, a glycoside, as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and is  used in Truvia and Pur Via brands. This compound has generally been found to not affect blood glucose or blood pressure. Whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts are not FDA-approved, since little research has been done on its safety in high doses. The FDA only grants or denies approval to food additives, not supplements. Therefore, health food  and natural food stores can sell whole stevia and crude extracts without needing FDA approval only if it is labeled  as a supplement, not a food. The general consensus says that using this sweetener in small doses does seem safe.  However, as it begins to be used in more and more products, safety becomes more of an issue.

Some health concerns include the possibility of low blood pressure and may be of concern to many people taking antihypertensive medications, particularly calcium channel blockers. Other concerns may be that stevia can interact with anti-fungals, anti-inflammatories, anti-cancer drugs, insulin and oral anti-hyperglycemic medications.. People using large amounts of stevia should talk with their doctors and pharmacists.

 

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