The leaf above is from a Stevia plant and the powders and pills are the sweeteners derived from it. What is Stevia?
Stevia is a South American plant from the chrysanthemum family, grown and used by locals for its sweet tasting leaves.
Stevia extracts are 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, but contain no calories. This has made stevia an alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharine.
What is the difference between Stevia and artificial sweeteners?
Stevia is an herbal extract. Aspartame, saccharine, or sucralose (Splenda) are made from chemicals in a manufacturing plant.
But, the leaves of the stevia plant are not just ground up and served to us. There is a bunch of processing that goes into getting the best calorie free sweetener.
Manufacturers want to isolate Rebaudioside A because it has the least bitterness of all the sweet compounds in the stevia plant. To produce rebaudioside A commercially, stevia plants are dried and subjected to a water extraction process.
This crude extract contains about 50% rebaudioside A; its various glycoside molecules are separated via crystallization techniques, typically using ethanol or methanol as solvent.
At this point, you begin to wonder if there is a BIG difference between an herbal extract and a synthetic sweetener. They both spend some serious time in a manufacturing plant.
In December 2008, the FDA gave rebaudioside A (or reb A) approval for "Generally Recognized As Safe" status. Back in 1991, the FDA restricted stevia's import because there wasn't enough toxicological information to demonstrate its safety.
What changed? Well Cargill and Pepsico both developed reb A products, Truvia and PureVia (respectively). And, there have been more toxicological studies showing that it doesn't cause cancer.
But, is it safe?
There is one outspoken group - the Center for Science in The Public Interest - that believes that there should be more study of stevia in mice before we start a large experiment on ourselves with the stuff.
You see there are a bunch of studies in rats - but, they believe, not enough research in mice to prove that stevia is safe.
The good news is that stevia didn't cause cancer in rats and that the World Health Organization (WHO) did a study in 2009 and also concluded that stevia is safe.
My thinking is that as with any additive, the best plan is moderation. If you like the taste of stevia than use it to sweeten things - but don't go over board.
No toxicological study is going to be able to gauge the effect of large doses of anything on humans over many years. We are just subjected to too many different environmental factors.
What do you think of stevia based sweeteners?
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