Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Stevia by Any Other Name

Alright, I'm not going to lie. It's late and I'm tired. This post is going to be short, sweet and to the point. Ironically, that pretty well sums up our subject for today: Stevia.

For all the recent news and talk about Stevia, you couldn't be blamed for thinking it was just another new fangled man-made chemical for sweetening your coffee. Alas, you'd be wrong. Stevia hails from South America where it has been used for hundreds of medicine. That's right. It's a medicinal herb with a heck of a sweet kick and a bit of bitterness. More on the medicinal side of this plant later.

Much like white sugar is gleaned from sugar cane and sugar beets because of their high concentration of sucrose, the stevia hitting the shelves as I type is harvested from a particular genus of stevia plant called Stevia Rebaudiana (S. Reb). The source of sweetness in stevia plants is the glycosides. Glycosides are a molecular structure made up of one part sugar and one part non-sugar plant material. S. Reb has eight of these glycosides including a very high concentration of the extremely sweet glycoside dubbed Rebaudiocide A, or Reb A. Reb A is 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. That's some serious sugar rush potential.

Still with me? Stevia is a kind of plant. Stevia Rebaudiana is a particular Stevia plant with a whole lot of Reb A, which is really, really sweet. Got it? Good.

Back in 1991, the FDA banned all use of stevia in the US. The reason given was "toxicological information on stevia is inadequate to demonstrate its safety." Then in 1995, the FDA lifted the ban and allowed stevia extract to be sold as a dietary supplement. To be clear, stevia extract is made with all eight glycosides in the whole leaf of the Stevia Rebaudiana plant. As a result, stevia extract weighs in at 20 to 30 times the sweetness of sugar, not nearly as sweet as the isolated Reb A.

Flash forward to 2008 and the FDA grants Reb A the status Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Cue dollar signs in the eyes of every food manufacturer looking for an edge. Naturally, the first to cue up were Coke and Pepsi. Coke partnered with Cargill to produce Truvia and Pepsi gave us Purevia. Both products combine Reb A with a corn-based sugar alchohol called erythritol to minimize the bitter aftertaste of Reb A.

Based on all this information, if someone were to ask you for stevia, they could be asking for a plant, a dietary supplement, a powerful sweetener with a bitter edge or a packet of Reb A mixed with some corn-based sweetener. Granted, they probably don't want the plant, but you get my point. Stevia by that name is not necessarily the same, but to be well-informed eaters, we need to understand the difference.

As mentioned at the opening of this post, stevia leaves have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. It has been used for weight loss, high blood pressure, heartburn and for preventing pregnancy, among other things. These bodily impacts are made by the non-sugar side of the glycosides in the stevia leaf. It is for this reason that stevia extract has not been approved for use beyond dietary supplement. The seven glycosides beyond Reb A have simply not been investigated thoroughly enough for us to completely understand the impact they will have on our bodies. Reb A, on the other hand, has been put through its paces for decades across Europe, Asia and South America. However, in its commercial form, it is not purely Reb A. It is Reb A combined with a chemically process corn-based sugar alcohol.

Wrapping up, here's our choice when it comes to stevia: a less than optimally tested dietary supplement or hybrid natural/manufactured sweetener. I'm consuming both right now. My Arbonne Protein shake mix and the coconut milk I use to make them both use Reb A. (Neither uses erythritol.) For now, I'm not concerned because I'm using stevia to kick my addiction to sugar so I can eventually wean off sweets nearly completely. However, once I've met that goal, I won't be using it in my coffee on a daily basis. I have very low blood pressure and, although I don't think I could consume enough stevia extract to cause serious problems, I don't think it will help either.

I hope this helps you make the right decision for you. Please check out the sites listed below that I used to put this together and do your own digging. Please post what you find in the comments.

Did I say this was going to be short? Oh, well, it was totally worth it, but I better sign off before the clock strikes midnight!

Take care!



Universityof Nebraska Study


Eating Well

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