Just as various publishers are trying to be the one to release the next big “diet” book, many companies are trying to find the next big alternative sweetener for possible use in diet drinks. Some would probably put their money on stevia (stevioside). Here’s why:
- Stevia has been approved in a dozen other countries including Japan and China
- It sounds “natural” because it comes from a shrub (yerba dulce) that grows in Brazil and Paraguay
- Stevia is about 100 times sweeter than sugar
But I’ve been more in a “wait and see” mode when it comes to stevia. Just because something is “natural” and comes from a shrub, doesn’t mean it is totally safe. After all tobacco would technically be considered “natural”, yes?
So far the Food and Drug Administration is still considering stevia “an unsafe food additive” and that data and information necessary to support the safe use of stevia have been lacking. But it’s not just about proving it is safe for use in food; it’s about also proving that it isn’t unsafe.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (non-profit consumer agency based in Washington, DC) lists stevia in the AVOID category in their report on food additives. They note that Canada has not approved stevia and a European Community scientific panel declared stevia unacceptable for use in food. “Studies found that high dosages fed to rats caused reduced sperm production and an increase in cell proliferation in their testicles.” CSPI also notes that pregnant hamsters fed large amounts of a derivative of stevia had fewer and smaller babies. Lab studies have suggested that stevia can be converted into a mutagenic compound, possibly promoting cancer by causing mutations in the cells DNA, according to CSPI. I knew we would get to the “C” word sooner or later.
They surmise that small amounts of stevia are probably safe but that “it is inappropriate to endorse wide use of this sweetener” and approving use in soft drinks would definitely be considered “wide” use.
Which basically leaves us all still wondering about stevia, doesn’t it?!