I was in the grocery store going to pick up my usual Tropicana orange juice when I saw a new version announcing "50% less sugar" on the carton. They call it Trop50. Curious, I picked it up and examined the label. Concerned over taking in too much sugar from juice, I wanted to see what this lower sugar version was all about.
Since I'm not a big fan of artificial sweeteners, I reviewed the ingredients, didn't find any, and dropped the juice into my cart. Later that night, I woke up and poured my routine glass of juice (strange nightly habit of mine). One sip and I knew something was up. I began examining the label again. In a small section I read that this juice did in fact contain some sort of "sweetener".
The sweetener is called stevia and it's marketed as PureVia (rebaudioside A or Reb A, the active ingredient) or TruVia, which is stevia sold in packets. The Japanese have been using stevia for decades with no adverse health events reported. Stevia is not considered an “artificial” sweetener because it is derived naturally from the stevia plant. It is calorie-free and 250-300 times sweeter than sugar. What? How can this be? And is this safe?
In December 2008, the FDA granted stevia as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Ingredients used as food additives that are given the GRAS stamp-of-approval by the FDA means that there are no reported adverse events, therefore safe and no additional testing is warranted. Last year, a joint global health committee on food additives declared stevia safe. A safe dose for a 150-pound person would be approximately 15 packets of stevia per day, which is a ridiculous amount (Environmental Nutrition, April 2009).
Prior to receiving the GRAS stamp of approval, it was only available on the market as a dietary supplement. Despite the GRAS approval, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group, is skeptical. According to an article in CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter (April 2000), before December 2008, approval by the FDA of stevia for use in food was declined because the agency did not believe it had enough evidence to declare it as safe. The article mentions earlier studies conducted on animals showed a possible link between stevia consumption and reproductive issues, cancer and interference with energy metabolism. CSPI believes the December 2008 approval of stevia as a GRAS ingredient was a rush job, and that there needs to be more rigorous testing of all GRAS-categorized ingredients.
Despite the adverse events reported in earlier studies conducted on animals, stevia may seem like a godsend to diabetics, yo-yo dieters and sweets addicts. Very sweet, calorie-free, and best of all, natural. Consumers are becoming more in tune with eating less processed foods and gravitating toward labels that scream out “all-natural”. Although stevia seems to get a general thumbs-up on safety, consumers must keep in mind that because something is natural does not mean it’s safe. There are many natural herbs and supplements that have been pulled off the market. Plus, many still on the market could have an adverse effect when combined with certain medications. In the case of stevia, when combined with diabetes or blood pressure medications, this may result in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hypotension (low blood pressure), respectively.
And what about taste? I tried a sample of stevia a few years ago in coffee. At first I thought the coffee was bad, but then I realized it was the stevia. In my opinion, it has a horrible aftertaste. When I took my first sip of Trop50 it had that same nasty aftertaste. I didn’t want to be wasteful so I tried it again. Nope. I’m going back to my usual OJ with real sugar.
My RD perspective? If you are concerned about your sugar intake, take a snapshot of your day. How is sugar getting into your diet? For example, let’s say you dump a ton of sugar into your morning coffee accompanied with a donut. Then you decide to start using stevia in your coffee along with the donut. I think it would be better to use a couple teaspoons of real sugar in your coffee and ditch that sugary donut altogether. If you like to eat something sweet in the morning, even opting for a high fiber “pop tart” or cereal bar in some cases is a better option than the donut.
So is stevia the answer we’ve all been looking for? I’m not sold, that’s for sure. If you like stevia, using it in moderation should not wreak havoc on your health. But until more studies are done, consider opting for real sugar or using stevia and other sweeteners sparingly.
Newly Approved Stevia Sweetener Beckons, But Is Natural Safe Enough? (April 2009). Environmental Nutrition, Retrieved July 24, 2009, from http://www.environmentalnutrition.com/issues/32_4/inthenews/151840-1.html
Schardt, D (April 2000). Stevia - a Bittersweet Tale. Nutrition Action Healthletter, Retrieved July 24, 2009, from http://www.cspinet.org/nah/4_00/stevia.html
Tropicana: Products. Retrieved July 24, 2009, from Tropicana.com Web site: http://www.tropicana.com/#/trop_products/productsLanding.swf?Trop50
Voiland, A (July 28, 2008). The Zero-Calorie Sweetener Arrives. US News and World Report, Retrieved July 24, 2009, from http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/living-well-usn/2008/07/28/the-zero-calorie-sweetener-stevia-arrives.html?PageNr=1
Zeratsky, K Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Retrieved July 24, 2009, from Mayoclinic.com Web site: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stevia/AN01733