Sugar is generally considered the gold standard for sweet flavor. Even so, it is a dietary liability with well-documented adverse effects upon people’s health. Artificial sweeteners are losing market share for similar reasons. Big Food is well aware of these changes. So, for the past decade, they have been investing heavily in the search for a more appealing alternative. But is there any alternative, such as stevia, healthy for you?
Stevia, a non-caloric sugar alternative derived from a South American plant, now represents Big Food’s best hope for a killer-app sweetener. It is one that is natural, has no calories and tastes nearly indistinguishable from sugar. But what exactly is stevia?
What Is Stevia?
Stevia is a non-caloric, natural extract from a Paraguayan shrub that is up to 300 times as potent as sugar. It was used for centuries in some cultures. It was available for decades in health food stores in the U.S. This happened despite the Food and Drug Administration’s vigorous years-long effort to keep it off shelves. In 2008, they finally classified the purified form of stevia as safe to use. However, this happened shortly after Coca-Cola announced plans to make large-scale use of stevia in their products.
Cargill, the global agribusiness giant, joined forces with Coca-Cola in 2008 to introduce Truvia. It is a stevia-based tabletop sweetener blend. Meanwhile, several food companies quickly followed suit. Stevia, though, has one rather big flaw for manufacturers: it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Ever since, the goal for many of these companies was to find a better tasting stevia, or a stevia 2.0.
Items That Contain Stevia
Since 2008, there has been a steadily growing assortment of food products made with stevia. These include the below.
- Soy sauce;
- Diet beverages.
Sweetened beverages amount to up to 1/5th of all the liquids people consume. Therefore, this has by far the largest market potential for food companies. But due to stevia’s bitter taste, especially when used in larger concentrations — for example in soda — stevia so far has mainly been used in a little-loved sub-category called mid-calorie diet beverages. These mix stevia with reduced amounts of sugar.
Because of stevia’s bitter aftertaste, Big Food has been investing massive amounts in the past five years. They have tried to find an improved version of stevia. Cargill, for instance, has gone so far as to do a runaround of the stevia plant itself. Focusing on the chemical in the stevia plant, rebaudioside, Cargill has developed a method to synthetically produce rebaudioside by using GMO yeast.
The Dangers of Stevia
As mentioned above, stevia has been used as a sugar substitute in some cultures for centuries with no obvious ill effects. The FDA’s vigorous campaign to limit stevia in the 1980s and ’90s may be a big warning sign to some. Or it may just depend on each individual’s esteem of the FDA.
Left out of the discussion here is the controversy involving GMOs. This particularly refers to Cargill’s use of genetically modified yeast to produce products with rebaudioside. What is clear is that using stevia can cause mild side effects in some. These include dizziness, nausea, muscle pains, numbness and gas.
So the scientific community has not come to any solid conclusions regarding the question is stevia healthy or not?. But certain studies indicate some potential health dangers:
- Reproductive issues: In a single study, investigators found that male rats who were fed a derivative of stevia had numerous reproductive issues. Which over several years, this could lead to infertility. Another study focused on female hamsters. This one found stevia ingestion limited the weight and number of offspring.
- Cancer: There is some concern among scientists that stevia may be linked to an increased risk of cancer. Even so, the evidence is inconclusive. Investigators are still searching via further reviews, testing and studies to settle this question.
Is Stevia Healthy for You?
The foremost benefit of using stevia is that it isn’t sugar. Consumers are more informed about what they eat than ever before. Now, sugar is now seen as the most dangerous of diet liabilities. Moreover, it easily beats fat, salt and gluten in many opinion surveys. There are several documented health benefits to using stevia, in particular pure stevia extract. Here are two of them.
- Lowers high blood pressure: There were studies made which used large doses of stevioside (one of the sweet tasting components of stevia). After two years, it helped reduce blood pressure when it was abnormally high.
- Helps people with Type-2 Diabetes: In other studies, taking an extract of stevia has reduced blood-sugar levels considerably. It also improved the production of insulin in users. As a sweetener, stevia is a good fit for diabetics and others who are on a reduced carbohydrate diet.
To Sweeten Up
Pure stevia extract may be a perfect sugar substitute for many. This refers particularly to those with diabetes or who desire to lose weight. But be aware that the question, is stevia healthy, remains, to an extent, unanswered. If you decide to use it, look for products with stevia extract or stevia rebaudiana in the ingredients list.
So is stevia healthy? Add your views on this question and more in the comment section or on Facebook.
Images from depositphotos.com.