My last post about agave generated lots of discussion and even more questions about another popular sweetener, Stevia. So, as requested, here’s the scoop:

What is Stevia?

Stevia comes from the sweet-tasting leaves of a shrub called Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni which is native to Central and South America. Components within the leaf (stevioside and rebaudioside A (reb A)) provide most of its sweetness. Stevia’s virtually calorie free and is between 200-400 times sweeter than sugar. It’s commercially sold under the names Truvia, PureVia, and Sun Crystals. In the United States, Stevia’s most commonly used as a tabletop sweetener but is also found in diet beverages and other foods.

Is It Natural?

The leaf of the Stevia plant is, of course, natural. Use of it can be traced back to the indigenous folks of Paraguay who chewed the tasty leaves and sweetened tea and other beverages with them. In the 1970s the Japanese developed a system for extracting and refining the sweet compounds within the leaf and began selling it commercially. In 2010 refined Stevia- based sweeteners were approved for use in the U.S. and around the world.

While today’s Stevia sweeteners are marketed as “natural” a lot of processing goes into isolating the sweet tasting compounds from the leaf and getting them into those little packets in crystal form. In order to comply with FDA requirements and minimize the slight licorice flavor of the leaf, commercially available Stevia is really a refined form of the compound reb A. It’s also often combined with bulking agents so the end product mimics sugar. Because of this significant chemical processing, many, including myself, consider Stevia to be an artificial sweetener despite its natural origins.

Is it Safe?

The FDA has put Stevia products composed of 95% of reb A (like Truvia and PureVia) on the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest contends that it isn’t adequately tested. They note that early research linked reb-A-type substances with DNA damage, a potential cancer risk.

My Recommendation

Commercially available Stevia sweeteners are derived from a natural source but are, in reality, highly processed concentrated sweeteners. While they’re likely safe in small amounts, I don’t recommend using them liberally because there are many unanswered questions.

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