What the Heck Is Stevia?

Confession: I’m easily addicted to the sweet stuff.

Sugar, artificial sweeteners, stevia. Your other Living Well Daily editor, Nate Rifkin, can attest that I can chew through half a pack of Extra a day.

It’s really bad.

In my search for a healthier sweetener that isn’t as caloric as sugar and isn’t artificial like aspartame or sucralose (Splenda), I came across stevia. You too have probably seen it lately popping up as the new best “natural sweetener”.

In fact, it seems many of you share my sweet tooth, because you wrote in asking about stevia.

So what is stevia, exactly?

Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is a plant that commonly grows in tropical regions in South America and Asia. It was discovered over 1,500 years ago in Paraguay, where the natives chewed on stevia leaves for its sweet taste and to help freshen their breath. They also added it to their teas and used it as a tonic to settle an upset stomach.

During the sugar shortage of WWII, the NIH began researching stevia. But once the war was over, their interest in stevia dropped. Japan picked up where the NIH left off, and by 1982, stevia made up a 40% share of the commercial sweetener market in Japan.

Today, it’s continuing to be studied for its safety and health benefits and is making its way into many products, including Pepsi’s new soda, Pepsi True. (But don’t let the green packaging fool you: It still has 60 calories of pure sugar that you’re better off without.)

The two main components of stevia that give it the sweet taste are steviosides and rebaudiosides. Many of the stevia products on the market are rebaudioside extracts, since the steviosides can give a bitter aftertaste.

Since stevia is marketed as being “natural,” that must mean it’s safe, and certainly better than artificial sweeteners, right? Well, the truth is that some of the stevia packets you find in your grocery store aren’t exactly natural stevia.

There are actually four different types of stevia:

  1. The whole plant.
  2. The whole plant leaf dried and powdered (about 30-40 times sweeter than sugar).
  3. Liquid or powdered stevia rebaudioside extract (up to 200 times sweeter than sugar).
  4. And products like Coca-Cola’s Truvia, which are refined stevia mixed with erythritol (or sometimes maltodextrin) and “natural flavors.” (About 400 times sweeter than sugar.)

At a glance, Truvia doesn’t sounds so bad. It’s just three ingredients.

Well… I found Coca-Cola’s patent for refining the rebaudioside from stevia, and it looks to be anything but natural (U.S. Patent # 20070292582 A1). Creating Truvia involves an extensive refining process that even includes mixing it with methanol (which the CDC calls a “toxic alcohol”).

In addition, erythritol is the byproduct of yeast fermentation of corn. As for “natural flavors”, well, they can be derived from bugs and the anal scent glands of beavers.

And while that’s technically natural, it’s not exactly appetizing, is it?

Other commercial stevia products you may find in the grocery store are mixed with maltodextrin to help make it a powder form. Maltodextrin can be made from GMO corn.

Yikes.

Though it’s probably a better option than toxic aspartame, if you want to give stevia a shot, steer clear of Truvia and other brands that use ingredients like rebaudioside A, erythritol and maltodextrin.

But what about safety of the not-so-refined stuff? Well, research is indicating that true stevia might actually have a bunch of health benefits. Stay tuned, because in the next issue of Living Well Daily, I’m going to cover the health benefits of stevia and point you to the best brands to buy.

To living well,

Jasmine LeMaster

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