With the 2008 FDA approval for the natural no-calorie sweetener, stevia, food manufacturing companies are chomping at the bit for their share of the market. Since you can’t “own” a natural substance, manufacturers are creatively processing and blending stevia extract with other no-calorie sweetening agents.
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Stevia is a plant grown and cultivated in sub-tropical regions across the globe but originated in South America. Its leaves lend an extract so sweet it surpasses regular table sugar 200 to 300 times over. Although we are hearing a lot about stevia lately it has been around for a long time. According to David Richard, author of "Stevia Rebaudiana: Nature's Sweet Secret," stevia is in the chrysanthemum family and its usage dates back to 1887.
Stevia Blends Are Not Really "Natural"
You will rarely see mention of this sweetener without the word “natural” lingering nearby. By the time it hits shelves however, it has been processed, refined and combined with other sweeteners and fillers until it is a vague memory of its former self. The product is hitting the market in various blends for reasons of taste and texture. Stevia tends to have a bitter, licorice taste and food scientists are looking for ways to make the sweetener more palatable.
Current Blends on the Market
Coca-cola and Pepsi-Co developed Truvia and Purevia respectively for single use and for use in their products. John Serrao, from Nutrition Wonderland, reports that both companies use nearly the same chemical compound using a stevia derivative called rebiana--one that has undergone very little testing and those that have been done were largely funded by developers with ties to Coca-cola and Pepsi-Co. These stevia products are “blends” that contain a sugar alcohol called erythritol which was been approved as safe by both the FDA and the World Health Organization. Serrao cites that these products contain more erythritol than rebiana and his statement about this product is that it's an agribusiness’ attempt to “own the intellectual property behind stevia--in effect owning the food.”
Not All Blends Are Created Equal
Serrao also reports on the studies of a stevia derivative, called stevioside, developed by Japanese scientists, that show “significant health benefits to those who use it medicinally.” The Japanese have been using stevioside since the early 1980s in various products. A Pubmed report states that stevioside studies show immune system benefits and could potentially be the answer for type 2 diabetes. There is even talk that it may help regulate cholesterol and triglyceride levels. But the Coca-cola and Pepsi-Co products do not contain this particular derivative in their blends.
Moderation Is Best
The controversy will likely go on for years. The promise for medical benefits keeps the professionals and consumers alike hopeful. While there is no definitive evidence against stevia products more research is needed before we really know the effects of the stevia blends. Even though they are touted as safe, moderation in any sweetener is best.