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Stevia: Natural Sugar Alternative or Toxic Chemical?

The other day I was at the grocery store in the yogurt section.

stevia sugars natural alternativeUsually I’ll just throw a bunch of Greek yogurts in our cart; I like plain, Kara prefers coconut and the girls like all of it.  By the way, mix any of them with peanut butter and they are DELISH.  Like peanut butter and jelly.

I digress.

A woman comes up next to me and is picking out some yogurts as well.  She starts reading the labels and I guess she wanted me to hear, so she was reading outloud.

She picked one up "Sucralose? That’s junky."  Picked up another and said "Stevia," and then turned to her daughter and said "good, this one is natural and only 100 calories, we’ll get this."

The first question, what is "natural?"  What does that even mean?

In the nutrition world, nothing.  Really.

In our heads it’s a lovely, romantic story about how a food isn’t processed at all or "tainted" by any other hands, outside of the farmer who only uses organic practices and probably waters it with filtered, pH balanced water. 

But that’s far from the truth.

"Natural" has zero significance when it comes to food.  The FDA has not defined what it actually means, though the term is thrown around on food labels, usually on products that look wholesome and pure.  We’ve seen natural products laden with preservatives. 

Let’s take a step back with stevia — often viewed as the holy grail of sugar alternatives — and take a look at this popular alternative to "artificial sweeteners."

It comes from the sweet tasting leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana bertoni plant, native to Central and South America. 

There are certain components within the leaf – stevioside and rebaudioside A (reb A)) – that provide most of its sweetness.  In fact, stevia is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.  You’ll most commonly see it in stores under the names Truvia, PureVia, Stevia in the Raw, Sweet Leaf and Sun Crystals.

When first introduced to the market, it had to be labeled as a dietary supplement because it didn’t quite have what’s called "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) status, which is the only way it can be sold as a food.  So you could initially only find it as a dietary supplement.  However, in 2008 this changed and after reviewing the available data, the FDA has granted Stevia GRAS status and it’s in the brands listed above as well as in several products themselves, from yogurt to soft drinks, protein powders and more. 

But this FDA approval certainly didn’t come without controversy.

Folks at the Center for Science in Public Interest and several renowned toxicologists from UCLA aren’t quite on board with widespread distribution and use, pointing to data that show DNA damage and mutations, which could raise the risk of developing cancer.  These studies have been done in animals, but these groups suggest a little more concern is certainly warranted, given the tens of millions of people who will be using stevia liberally.

Outside of potential health concerns, the flavor leaves a bit to be desired.

Stevia itself has a bitter aftertaste that we’re not fans of in the Mohr house.  That being said, we have tasted a few protein powders that use it that don’t have that same bitter taste.

Our stance? 

First, getting back to the question "is stevia natural" — no.

The loosely defined natural word to us would mean you are eating the actual leaf of the plant.  And you can do that; one vendor at our local Farmer’s Market sold it by the plant.  Keep in mind, though, while this has a hint of sweetness, it’s nothing like the end product, isolated from the isolated components of the leaf described above.

The highly concentrated sweetener alternative – Stevia – is not natural in the form it’s sold.

Our preference for sweetening foods are local honey from our farmers market and pure maple syrup (and no, Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin aren’t pure or aren’t real maple syrup).  Both of these are also sweeter than traditional table sugar and have unique flavors in and of themselves.

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Leave 25+ comments below and we’ll be back tomorrow with another blog about Monk Fruit Sweetener, the newest darling in the "natural foods" world.

 

10 Responses to Stevia: Natural Sugar Alternative or Toxic Chemical?

  1. Karen Magill January 22, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

    I read a lot about artificial sweeteners being bad for you but most of the claims are garbage. IMHO. First, that they make a person gain weight. I have personally gained weight and lost weight using artificial sweeteners. (I am the child of a diabetic so I used them regularly for many years) Another claim is that they cause neurological diseases. Yes I have MS but the percentage of people who use artificial sweeteners is a lot higher than those who have neurological diseases. And I know people with MS who have never used artificial sweeteners.

    On that note though, they are a chemical or chemically enhanced which can’t be good. And sugar isn’t overly healthy either. I started cutting back on my use of A.S. late last year and buying organic coconut sugar. Now I don’t use A.S. and very little coconut sugar. I tried to use blackstrap molasses but it was too salty for me.

    • Chris and Kara Mohr January 22, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your response.

  2. Erin January 22, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    Not all stevia products are created equal. In other words, some are more natural others. Many people wonder how a the green leaves of the stevia plant can end up a white powder. In other words, how does fhe processing occur? This seems to be what you may be wondering as well. Again, the stevia products you see in the store are not equal in quality or taste, therefore they shouldn’t be lumped together in generalizations.

    When asked how a green leaf can turn into white powder, Jim May, founder and CEO of SweetLeaf Stevia and the first person to bring stevia into the U.S. in 1982 from Paraguay said this:

    “The stevia herb is green because of chlorophyll. To make the white powder we soak leaves in cool water, and a period of soaking time, all the the nutrients of various molecular pores (sizes) which can extract the 4 most desirable glycosides, the sweet compounds in the leaves. Scientists used to think there were 11 glycosides, but now we know there are over 25. When they are separated you have white powder because the chlorophyll is removed. No bleach or chemicals ever touch the product.”

    Keep in mind that while the stevia leaves are about 30 times sweeter than sugar, the extract is 300 times sweeter than sugar, so another ingredient is need to make it cosumable. Another difference in quality is the difference as to what the ingredients are, and perhaps how much of those ingredients are present in comparison to stevia extract. SweetLeaf stevia contains only inulin in the powder, a soluble natural fiber in its filler.

    (Employed by Wisdom Natural Brands, SweetLeaf Stevia)

    • Chris and Kara Mohr January 22, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

      This is a fantastic post and thank you for responding. We also appreciate your disclosure for your employer. This is insight we would otherwise not be able to provide from your CEO, Jim May. Thanks!

  3. sarah January 22, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

    Would love it you shared the brand/name of the protein powders you tasted. I hate the flavor of artificial sweeteners and can pick up on it easily.

    • Chris and Kara Mohr January 22, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

      While there may be others, Kara and I both think these taste best from those we’ve tasted:

      Prograde Whey Protein: http://tinyurl.com/ccgwj4o
      Bodylogix Whey Protein: http://www.bodylogix.com
      Jamie Eason’s Whey Protein for Labrada Nutrition: http://www.labrada.com – Jamie Eason and Lee Labrada are trusted friends and we just had the chance to taste this today. It uses monk fruit sweetener.

      Let us know what you try and what you think.

      • Sarah January 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

        Thank you so much for the suggestions!

  4. Susie January 22, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    I have never been able to tolerate any of the stevia products – too bitter and the taste stays with me. Have seen good articles (doesn’t affect glycemic index; doesn’t cause but can aid in preventing cavities, etc) on Xylitol from birch tree (as opposed to corn). What is your opinion/research on Xylitol?

    • Chris and Kara Mohr January 22, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      Xylitol is small doses seems to be fine. Any sugar alcohol — something ending in ol — can cause GI effects if used in high doses, so just don’t overdo it

  5. Kathylee January 23, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    Thanks for this article. I do use stevia in small amounts. Since it is so much sweeter inky small amounts are required. I find it hard to decide what hill to make my stand on but I think I am mostly against high fructose corn syrup and Splenda. What is your opinion on organic coconut sugar. I have heard a few good things about it but haven’t tried it yet. Thanks!!

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