July 12, 2010 —
I've recently been experimenting with stevia, the new kid on the sweetener shelf, as a sweetener for my afternoon tea. It's touted as a healthy alternative to sugar because it has no calories and does not spike blood insulin levels (leading to that well-known boom-and-bust craving cycle).
A little of stevia goes a long way. Extracts are estimated to be 200 to 300 times as sweet as sugar. And it has a bit of a licorice-like aftertaste.
It is made from the leaves of Stevia regaudiana, a subtropical and tropical plant. Sounds natural enough, a far better sugar substitute than artificial chemical sweeteners like saccharine.
Yet stevia has raised health concerns.
The FDA banned stevia's importation and sale in 1991, after a preliminary study found it to be a possible carcinogen. However, a follow-up study found flaws in THAT study, and questioned its results.
The FDA softened its stance in 1995, allowing stevia to be used as a food supplement, but not as a sweetener. Now, even that position has changed. By 2008, the FDA permitted Cargill/CocaCola's Truvia, and Pepsi/Whole Earth Sweetener Co's PureVia to go on the market with the designation, "generally recognized as safe." But the FDA takes the view on its website that these products "aren't stevia," per se. They are not, in other words, crushed, dry stevia leaves. They are Rebaudioside A, or Reb-A, a highly-purified, refined extract of the stevia leaf.
So, stevia gets FDA approval, in a highly-processed form.
For some, that processing may be enough to have them steer clear from stevia. Wikipedia says stevia extracts are drawn out of the leaf through the use of methanol (wood alcohol, the basis for formaldehyde, and highly toxic) and ethanol (good ol' moonshine, grain alcohol, one of the oldest recreational drugs). I'd rather take the risk of a sugar high and have some raw honey.
As for the debate about whether stevia is, or isn't, cancer-causing, I like the way LIVESTRONG summed it up: "the data simply do not support any ties to cancer," but this could simply mean that the right kinds of experiments have not yet been performed.
So, what does all this mean to me?
I am suspicious of anything that promises me the Holy Grail of super sweetness without calories or insulin spikes or consequences. It sounds too good to be true.
But even if it is...why bother? Take non-alcoholic beer, for example. If you're trying to avoid alcohol, why drink something that reminds you of the real thing? Drink something else!
So, why torture myself with stevia? It just reminds me of sugar, in all its refined, white, crystalline glory. Better to go cold turkey, and enjoy unsweetened tea, without all the angst.