Cargill, which is marketing the sweetener Truvia from Coca-Cola, received notification from the FDA that it had no objection to the product, calling it “generally recognized as safe.”
PepsiCo said it also had received a similar letter and the same “generally recognized as safe” designation for its sweetener, PureVia.
Both products use rebiana, an extract from the stevia plant.
I’ve commented on the stunning and mindboggling inconsistencies over the FDA’s approval of these Stevia-based sweeteners in a couple of previous articles. Because what they have approved is the use of certain active ingredients – these sweeteners are Stevia-based -- NOT the entire plant, which has been used as a natural sweetener for more than 1,500 years.
No, contrary to logic, the FDA actually declared natural Stevia an “unsafe food additive” at the end of 2007. Hain Celestial Group Inc, maker of Celestial Seasonings herbal teas, received a letter from the FDA saying the Stevia used in some of their teas may be dangerous to blood sugar and reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems.
Why Was Natural Stevia Deemed Non-GRAS?
The fact that Stevia has such an extraordinarily long history as a natural sweetener is a major clue and testament to its safety. Remember, usually it’s the synergistic effect of all the agents in the plant that provide the overall health effect, which oftentimes includes “built-in protection” against potentially damaging effects.
But what happens if you take only one or two of these agents, and discard the rest?
Will it affect your body the same way?
Truvia may turn out to be a very good substitute to sugar, but I’d have to see some more details before giving it a thoroughly enthusiastic thumbs-up – for the same reason the FDA uses as the basis for their refusal to consider Stevia GRAS (generally recognized as safe): there’s just not enough evidence to prove its safety.
No one has consumed just the active ingredient rebaudioside A for any length of time to be able to tell what might happen.
Meanwhile, in the United States, natural Stevia has been the subject of searches and seizures, trade complaints, and embargoes on importation. Many believe that the FDA’s actions regarding Stevia have been, and still are, nothing more than a restraint to trade, designed to benefit the artificial sweetener industry.
No doubt these patented Stevia-based sweeteners will rake in more money than you could possibly make from using the whole, natural plant! Since Stevia cannot be used in foods, Truvia and other Stevia-based sweeteners bound to spring forth, stand to gain an enormous market share as its most natural competition has been successfully eliminated.
What Do We Know About These Stevia-Based Sweeteners?
As I’ve written about before, Stevia contains a number of agents, including various stevioside compounds, rebaudiosides, and glycoside.
What the FDA has approved as GRAS are just a couple of the active ingredients, including rebaudioside A. It is this agent that provides most of the sweet taste.
In the recent Toxicology of Rebaudioside A: A Review, researchers point out that stevioside compounds and rebaudioside A are metabolized at different rates, making it impossible to assess the risk of rebaudioside A from toxicity assessments of stevioside (which has been used as food and medicine in Japan and South America for decades or longer).
Additionally, in a human metabolism study, stevioside and rebaudioside A had different pharmacokinetic results. In layman’s terms, that means that your body reacts differently to the two compounds; each compound is metabolized differently and remains in your body for different lengths of time.
On the other hand, another study from July 2008, looking at the subchronic toxicity of rebaudioside A, found no observable adverse effects below 4161 and 4645 mg/kg body weight/day in male and female rats, respectively. You’d be hard pressed to ever reach that amount even if you poured it on everything.
What Do We Know About Natural Stevia?
But there are also studies exonerating natural Stevia, and showing it has other health benefits aside from sweetening.
One such study, published in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Animal Psychology and Animal Nutrition, comments on its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Researchers looked at Stevia’s potential use as a prebiotic animal feed supplement, in light of the 2007 ban on the use of seven common antibiotics in animal feed.
They found that dietary Stevia reduced blood levels of glucose, triglycerides and triiodothyronine (T(3)). In contrast, animals who received only the active agent stevioside, only saw a decrease in T(3).
So, at least for health benefits, consuming whole Stevia could be preferable to only one of its agents, even if that one agent does not cause undue harm.
Another 2007 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported that the Stevia plant may be useful as a potential source of natural antioxidants.
Is Natural Stevia Safe for Everyone?
My traditional advice has been that if you struggle with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or extra weight, then you have insulin sensitivity issues and would benefit from avoiding ALL sweeteners, including Stevia. However, I might need to revise that recommendation in light of the study referenced above.
According to a 1995 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, rats receiving chronic administration of Stevia extract for 40 and 60 days developed hypotension (abnormally low blood pressure), diuresis (increased formation of urine by the kidney), and natriuresis (excretion of an excessively large amount of sodium in the urine).
This, by the way, is likely one of the studies used by the FDA to declare Stevia non-GRAS…
However, if you compare it to the damage caused by consuming too much sugar – which is GRAS, and VERY easy to overdo if you eat the standard American diet laden with fast food and processed food products – then I still believe Stevia is a far lesser evil of the two. And it’s definitely preferable to artificial sweeteners at any amount!
I must tell you that I am biased; I prefer Stevia as my sweetener of choice, and I frequently use it. However, like most choices, especially sweeteners, I recommend using Stevia in moderation, just like sugar. Additionally, in excess it is still far less likely to cause metabolic problems than sugar or any of the artificial sweeteners.So if you are going to sweeten your foods and beverages anyway, I strongly encourage you to consider using regular Stevia, and toss all artificial sweeteners, limit sugar, and hold off on the Stevia-based sweeteners until their safety have been thoroughly assessed.