Let’s start with the basics. What is stevia (pronounced STEH-veeya)?
Stevia is an herb, native to South America, which is naturally very sweet.
It has no calories and is diabetic-friendly because it won’t spike your blood sugar. And it’s safe. Stevia has been used for centuries as a sweetener in South America and for decades in Japan where it’s the most popular non-sugar sweetener. Despite widespread and long-term use, there is no evidence that stevia causes health problems, in fact there is some evidence that stevia is helpful for hypertension and type-2 diabetes. In 2006 the World Health Organization did a comprehensive review of recent human and animal safety studies on stevia, and found no evidence it was either toxic or carcinogenic.
Sounds great, huh? So why haven’t you heard about it? One word. Politics. The FDA went against it’s own guidelines about what qualifies as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) and banned stevia as a food additive in 1991. Allegedly they did so because of safety concerns, but almost certainly it was because they were pressured by the artificial sweetener industry.
Don’t think artificial sweetener is politically connected? Donald Rumsfeld ~ yes, THAT Donald Rumsfeld, then head of Searle, the maker of aspartame (Equal) ~ used his political connections to push through the approval of aspartame after 16 years of FDA refusal based on a mountain of evidence that aspartame causes serious health problems. Yes, really. But I digress…back to the stevia story…
Though stevia was banned as a food additive it was allowed to be sold as an herbal supplement in 1994 as part of the DSHEA ( Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) which covers herbal supplements. Why the double standard? The difference is burden of proof. To be sold as a food additive the producer must prove it’s safe (unless it’s GRAS, as most natural products are). Since stevia is natural and cannot be patented there was no big-pharma company to back such research. However, for the FDA to prevent it being sold under DSHEA, there must be proof the substance is unsafe, which there is not. Hence the confusing allowed-as-supplement but disallowed-as-sweetener status of stevia. So for years, we health nuts have been getting our stevia at the health food store on the herbal supplement aisle or online.
But now there are stevia-based sweeteners on the shelf of your local mega-mart named Truvia and PureVia. How did they get past the FDA restriction? You can thank Coke and Pepsi for that. To answer the American demand for a natural non-sugar sweetener Coke and Pepsi wanted to use stevia, which they already use in Asia to sweeten their diet products. Truvia (developed by Coca-Cola & Cargill) and PureVia (developed by PepsiCo & Merisant) contain only part of the stevia plant’s sweet extract (steviosides) called Rebaudioside A, or Reb A. Steviosides, the less refined extract of the stevia plant, is what the FDA has restricted for years as an additive. So big-food and big-pharma decided to refine it, pulling out only the RebA. Then in some twisted ruling the FDA agreed with Coke and Pepsi that RebA is GRAS, yet they’ve not yet applied GRAS to steviosides, the less refined extract of stevia. How the hell does THAT work? Whatever. Like we should expect logic from the FDA.
Both PureVia and Truvia are mostly a natural sugar alcohol erythritol (PureVia also adds isomaltulose, an allegedly safe sweetener derived from sucrose) mixed with a little RebA (stevia is SO sweet, a little is all it takes). However, it is the less refined extract, steviosides, which has been widely used in South America for centuries. I’m not saying there’s any evidence RebA isn’t safe, there’s not. It just seems to me that we’ve already learned the lesson that less refined is better. I also prefer to not get my stevia from China (the largest exporter of stevia).
So if you don’t want to get your stevia from big-food/big-pharma what’s your option? There are several stevia products available online or at health food stores and Whole Foods. But the best tasting stevia product I’ve found is Stevita. Stevita has been solely dedicated to growing, developing and producing stevia since the 1980’s. They grow their own non-genetically modified stevia plants in Brazil, the plant’s natural habitat, using sustainable farming practices and process the plants themselves using water to extract the steviosides. Stevita stevia plants are sweeter, and their extraction process results in a higher percentage of the sweet substances of the herb (the more complex steviosides, not just rebiana) resulting in a stevia product that doesn’t have the bitter aftertaste of some of their competitors. You’re not likely to find Stevita products on your grocer’s shelf (at least until the FDA clarifies its GRAS ruling on steviosides), but you can buy it from Amazon and other online retailers.
I prefer this form of Stevita stevia for baking. It’s stevia mixed with Xylitol to add bulk. This is what I typically add to my granola.
Stevita also offers a pure stevia product, with no fillers.
For some applications, however, liquid is the way to go. No fillers and powdered stevia doesn’t dissolve well in cold liquid. So making lemonade, for instance, almost requires liquid stevia (4 drops in a glass with water with the juice of one lemon, yum).