Julie Whittington, RD

Healthy tips from a Registered Dietitian

Newest sweetener, stevia, appearing in products

If you wonder about the safety of new sugar substitute on the market, read on.  The newest addition to the world of sugar substitutes goes by many names, but is known as stevia to most.  Actually, the plant extract is not new at all.  It has been around for quite a long time (and used in other countries as a sweetener) – but its use in popular American brand name products has not been until now.  In fact, the FDA approved it for use in food and drink (as a food additive) in December 2008. 

Stevia comes from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant (also called sweetleaf or sugarleaf), native to South and Central America.  Stevia’s trade name is rebiana but it is marketed by different companies under various names.  Coca-Cola’s version, Truvia, can be found in two new Odwalla drinks and in Sprite Green.  Truvia is also found in Glaceau’s Vitaminwater10.   PepsiCo’s version, Pure Via, exists in SobeLife water and a new Tropicana juice called Trop50.

You can also buy stevia in powder form (like the packets under the name Sweet Leaf,) in liquid drops or in tablets.  In its purified extract form, it is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, thus small amounts can be used to sweeten food and drink with very little calories and a slight flavor of licorice (if you can even taste it!)  It appears to have very little or no effect on blood glucose, making it a potentially useful product for those with diabetes.  Additionally, stevia is marketed as a natural sweetener (thus playing on America’s infatuation with everything “green”).

The questions remain as to the true safety of stevia.  It appears safe and has been used for years in other countries.  We will just have to wait and see.

My take?  Well, if you have to buy expensive food and drink products sweetened with sugar substitutes, your diet may need a little revamping.  For one, you are paying a lot of money for those products, when more “natural” and less processed ones are available.  What about diluting regular juice with water?  Voila!  Half the calories! 

Additionally, it is possible that in large amounts, any food additive can be harmful to health.  Watch out for consuming too many of these products – whether it is stevia, sucralose, aspartame, saccharin or something else – your health may be better off without any of them.  The main reason may even be that the actual foods or drinks they are in are not so healthy (such as sodas) and these items may be replacing more healthful items in your diet.  Or, as current research is finding, they may actually make you crave more sweets (like desserts), thus driving eating based on appetite, rather than hunger, and increasing the risk of disordered eating and/or unhealthy weight gain.

Of course, you have individuals who feel sugar substitutes may help replace someone’s sugar intake, if someone stuggles with consuming too much sugar already (perhaps with disordered eating and/or diabetes).

Keep the lookout for updates on stevia and the health benefits versus risks of sugar substitutes.  It is certainly a hot topic lately and you are likely to hear more about it.

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