STEVIA - A Natural, Low-Calorie/Kilojoule, Safe Sweetener*
A sugar substitute is a food additive that provides sweetness, but not the calories/kilojoules that are in refined sugar. Some sugar substitutes are natural and some are synthetic or ‘artificial sweeteners’.
Artificial sweeteners are ‘high intensity’ sweeteners. They are many times sweeter than sucrose (white sugar), so that only tiny amounts are required, and so supply negligible energy. These include:
· Saccharin (additive code no 954)
· Aspartame (code 951)
· Sucralose (code 955)
· Neotame (code 961)
· Cyclamate (withdrawn from sales since 1970).
Low-calorie/kilojoule sweeteners occur naturally in plants, especially berries and other fruits, and are known as ‘sugar alcohols’. Because it is difficult to extract these from foods, they are manufactured from the appropriate sugar. Thus they are synthesised ‘natural’ compounds. They include:
· Sorbitol, from glucose (code 420)
· Xylitol, from xylose (code 967)
· Lactitol, from lactose (code 966)
· Mannitol (code 421)
· Erythritol (code 968).
High-calorie/kilojoule sweeteners include:
· White sugar, brown sugar and raw sugar
· Maple syrup
· Glucose syrup (from corn in USA, and from wheat in Australia)
· Apple and pear juice concentrates
· Malt extract
· Brown rice syrup.
Natural sweeteners are:
- Agave nectar or syrup. This is obtained from the plant Agave tequilana, also called Blue Agave. It is commercially produced in Mexico. It contains no added chemicals, it tastes like honey, and it is about four times as sweet as white sugar.
- Stevia (code 960) - the topic of this newsletter.
Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is a herbaceous perennial, commonly known as ‘sweet leaf’, ‘sugarleaf’ or simply stevia. The genus Stevia consists of some 240 plants native to South America, Central America and Mexico.
The dried leaves of the stevia plant have 30-40 times the sweetness of sucrose (ordinary table sugar). Extracts of stevia have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar.
Stevia has also shown promise in medical research for treating such conditions as obesity and hypertension. It has a negligible effect on blood glucose, even enhancing glucose tolerance.
The Swiss botanist, Dr Moises Bertoni, first learned of stevia in 1887 and described the living plant in 1903. Limited research was carried out on the plant until 1931, when two French chemists isolated the glycosides that give stevia its sweet taste. These compounds were named stevioside and rebaudioside A, and are 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose, heat stable, pH stable in the range of 3-9 and non-fermentable. They do not darken with cooking.
The Australian food authority FSANZ has given regulatory approval for steviol glycosides to be used as food and beverage ingredients (2008). It is regarded as “a safe and valuable addition to food ingredients - look for it as stevia, steviol glycosides or as ingredient number 960” (Prof. David Midmore). He also said: “In principle this [approval] is very important, for commercial companies can now put steviol glycosides into their products to sweeten them. Such products include soft drinks, and cooked items, such as cakes and biscuits since steviol glycosides are thermo-stable up to 200° C. Steviol glycosides can also be used in organic ranges that couldn’t use artificial sweeteners.”
Forms of stevia that are available in Australia are stevia tea, stevia leaf extract and dried stevia leaf. Products containing stevia leaf extract include ice-cream, chocolate, confectionery, bakery items, jams, soft drinks, canned fruits and fruit juices.
· United States of America
Health and political controversies have limited stevia’s availability in many countries including the USA. It was banned there in the early 1990’s unless labelled as a supplement. It can be sold there as a dietary supplement, on the basis of its low glycaemia index. It does not have GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status for use in food and beverages. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually declared natural stevia an “unsafe food additive” at the end of 2007.
The fact that stevia has a very long history of being used as a natural sweetener (more than 1500 years) is testament to its safety. Remember, usually it is the synergistic effect of all the agents in the plant that provides the overall health effect.
Rebiana is the trade name for a patent-pending, calorie-free, food and beverage sweetener derived from stevia and developed jointly by the Coca-Cola Company and Cargill.
In May 2008, Cargill announced the availability of Truvia, a consumer brand of rebiana. PepsiCo and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company also announced PureVia, their brand of stevia-based sweetener.
In May 2007, Coca-Cola announced plans to obtain approval for its use as a food additive within the United States by 2009. As reported in the New York Times (December 17, 2008), the FDA approved two versions of “a new zero-calorie sweetener developed by the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo”. These were, respectively, Truvia and PureVia. The FDA notified both companies that it had no objection to rebiana, calling it “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS). This decision paved the way for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to launch a number of stevia beverages, which they have done in 2009.
Rebiana is not stevia, it is an extract of the stevia plant.
Stevia is widely used as a sweetener in Japan, having been introduced there as early as 1970. The Japanese have been using stevia in food products, soft drinks (including Coca Cola), and for table use. Japan currently consumes more stevia than any other country, with stevia accounting for some 40% of their sweetener market. With decades of high usage, no adverse effects from the consumption of stevia have been reported.
· European Union
In December 2009, Coca-Cola France reformulated Fanta Still with stevia, three months after the French government approved a form of the natural sweetener (rebaudioside A) in September 2009. France is the first European country to approve a stevia sweetener under a rule allowing member states to approve ingredients for a limited two year period, before full EU approval is given.
· Other Countries.
As at the end of 2008, stevia is banned in Singapore and Hong Kong, it is approved as a dietary supplement in Canada, and in South American countries it can be used as a food additive.
“No evidence for stevia constituents causing cancer or birth defects has been found.” However, bioassay, cell culture and animal studies have shown mixed results in terms of toxicology and adverse effects of stevia constituents, but in general “they have not been found to be harmful”. For a detailed overview of hundreds of studies attesting to the safety of stevia leaf and its extracts, go to www.stevia.net/safety.htm.
Dr Mauro Alvarez (a scientist with over 15 years experience researching the safety of stevia) says: “… our conclusions in these various studies indicate that stevia is safe for human consumption as per intended usage, that is, as a sweetener.” Referring to the ban by the FDA linked to some of his studies he said: “Even if they have reviewed these studies, the only possible way to report that the results showed detrimental effects is by taking information out of context. If this is the case, one concludes that these FDA scientists are incompetent and irresponsible, or if not, they must belong to some sort of conspiracy group to carry on a sinister agenda against this plant [stevia] with the objective to keep it away from American consumers by attributing to it safety issues that do not exist.”
The whole stevia plant, based on 1500 years experience, is safe. The patented stevia-based sweeteners will gain an enormous market share since they can be used in foods, whereas, at least in USA, stevia cannot be so used. However, no one has consumed just the active ingredient rebaudioside A for any length of time to tell just how safe it is.
Stevia has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity in rats and may even promote additional insulin production, helping reverse diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Preliminary human studies show stevia can help reduce hypertension.
Dr Joseph Mercola, author of “The World’s Most Popular Natural Health Newsletter” says: “Personally I believe stevia is the best sweetener available today and is the one I personally use and travel with.”
It should be remembered that stevia, like all plants, contains a number of agents, including various stevioside compounds, rebaudiosides, glycoside and other ingredients. More often than not, it is the supporting synergistic action of all of these ingredients that make natural products such as herbs capable of providing health benefits with very few (if any) detrimental side effects. The recent approval in the USA (by the FDA) for “stevia” is NOT for the whole plant; it is only for one active ingredient, rebaudioside A.
Extract made from the leaves of the stevia plant is undoubtedly the safest sweetener on the market. Unlike aspartame (see my July 2007 newsletter Aspartame – Safe or Toxic?) and other artificial sweeteners that have been cited for dangerous toxicity, stevia is a safe, natural alternative that is ideal if you are watching your weight, or if you are maintaining your health by avoiding sugar. It is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and has virtually no calories/kilojoules.
Stevia, the all natural sweetener:
· is 200-300 times sweeter than white sugar (sucrose)
· has virtually no calories/kilojoules
· is safe for children as well as adults
· is suitable for diabetics
· does not cause dental cavities
· is heat stable, so you can cook and bake with it
· is the perfect alternative to man-made (artificial) sweeteners
· mixes well in cold beverages as well as hot ones
· is safe.
It is recommended to use stevia in moderation. Even 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, consider using regular stevia, avoid all artificial sweeteners, limit sugar and hold off using stevia-based sweeteners until their safety have been thoroughly assessed.
*Copyright 2010: The Huntly Centre.
Disclaimer: All material in the Huntlycentre.com.au website is provided for informational or educational purposes only. Consult a health professional regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations expressed herein, with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.
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