Once only available as a supplement in health food stores, stevia has gone mainstream. How much do you know about this zero-calorie sweetener? Many folks are for it; others have concerns. Here are the basics.
Simply put, stevia is a calorie-free sugar substitute that comes from a stevia bush -- depending on the extract, it can be 200 times sweeter than regular sugar.
Liquid extracts and powders have been available for years. Because they were marketed as a supplement and sold in health stores, these stevia products didn't need FDA review and approval. Now, after years of lobbying and debating, the FDA has green lit one type of highly purified stevia known as rebiana. This decision allows food companies to sell rebiana for use as a sugar substitute and as an ingredient in packaged foods.
The marketed forms of rebiana (better known as Truvia or PureVia) come in packets of a fine white powder. The powder is definitely sweet, but doesn't taste quite like sugar -- instead it has a stronger flavor and lingering aftertaste. A little goes a very long way. The other stevia products still only sold as supplements are more potent and bitter.
Besides in health food stores, stevia is not in mainstream grocery stores -- the most common products are marketed under the brand name Truvia (from the makers of Cargill and Coca-Cola) and PureVia (from Pepsi); smaller companies, such as Sweetleaf and Sugar in the Raw, also have versions. Like Sweet'n Low or Splenda, these stevia sweeteners come in individual packets, but many companies are also reformulating their diet-friendly foods and beverages to contain stevia.
Unlike other popular synthetic sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, etc.), stevia is plant-derived, and supporters tout it as a natural alternative to those lab-created sweeteners. This doesn’t mean its safety is guaranteed. Right now, we don't have any official FDA guidelines that dictate when and where food manufacturers can use the word "natural" on food packaging.
Since stevia is free of calories and carbohydratess, it's especially appealing to diabetics and those trying to cut calories. But because of the potential health concerns, some nutrition experts are skeptical about replacing all refined sugars with any kind of these sugar alternatives. The American Diabetes Association does list stevia as a safe sugar alternative.
In Japan, food manufacturers have used stevia since the 1970s, but the U.S., Canada and Europe have been much slower in adopting it. There used to be concerns about its effects on fertility and a person's blood sugar, but further research has quashed those worries. One of stevia's main opponents is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has fought its approval since discussions began in the late 1990s. They point to research from UCLA toxicologists that found a link between heavy stevia consumption and DNA damage and cancer. CSPI wants us to research it more before we use it on a wide scale. (If you want to know more about their side, check out their stevia resource page.)
Bottom Line: A sprinkle of stevia here and there is most likely safe. Very little testing has been done on humans. Until more research is available, many dietitians recommend (and we agree) that children and pregnant or nursing women should skip it.