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Pooja R. Mottl

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Can Stevia Solve Our Obsession With Sweetness?

Posted: 06/23/10 09:00 AM ET

I'm always looking to Mother Nature for some alternatives to mainstream food ingredients to help consumers and clients stay healthier and feel their best. It's thought that one such ingredient may be stevia, or more correctly, stevia-derived sweeteners. Stevia sweeteners are gaining popularity because of two main factors: they contain zero calories and they're supposedly more "natural" compared to artificial sweeteners. As obesity continues to top news stories and consumers become more conscious about the source of our food, these two ideas seem to be a marketing dream scenario -- a miracle ingredient!

But just how "natural" is it really?

Stevia is a shrub-like plant native to South and Central America, known for its sweet leaves. Its extracts can be nearly 300 times the sweetness of sucrose (table sugar), and its negligible effect on blood glucose. Although its leaves have been eaten fresh and used in teas for centuries in Paraguay and Brazil, it's not legal to use whole stevia as a food additive in the United States.

But a tiny, naturally-occurring steviol glycoside constituent (about two to four percent of a whole leaf) of the plant, called rebaudioside A (also known as reb A, rebiana, stevia extract), was passed into Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) status by the FDA in 2008. It's now allowed as an ingredient in diet sodas, energy drinks, cold cereals, fruit juices, oatmeal, yogurts, candies, syrups, chewing gum and countless other packaged and baked goods. In 2009, the market intelligence firm Mintel proclaimed stevia was poised to become the "holy grail" of sweeteners, estimating the stevia market could exceed two billion dollars by the end of 2011. It's quite possible that this highly purified extract could soon be ingested by hundreds of millions of people on a daily basis.

How it's made

So we already know that this sweet substitute is not a whole food, since it's an isolated portion of the natural whole leaf. But what's really behind the process of making rebaudioside A into a legal food additive?

This is where things get complex. In order for a stevia plant to be converted into the final, GRAS approved product, milling, extracting, combining, chemical refining, filtrating, desorption, sterilization, recrystallization and purifying may have to occur depending on the procedure(s) used.

According to public FDA filings on behalf of Cargill: "Rebiana is obtained by hot water-extraction of leaves from the S. rebaudiana plant. The process can be divided into two phases, with the first phase involving the extraction of the leaves and preliminary purification to yield the steviol glycoside primary extract, followed by a second phase which involves re-crystallization of the steviol glycoside primary extract from a water/alcohol mixture to obtain a final product with a high rebaudioside A content."

Obviously this chain of events is quite lengthy, each step taking rebaudioside A further from its natural origins. And if we compare rebaudioside A to another, newly popular, "natural" sweetener, namely agave syrup, it gets even more apparent that although we may start with something from nature, by the time we reach the end of the processing chain, the finished product is a lot different. Instead of the ingredient coming from the whole agave plant/juice or the whole stevia leaf, it's just a highly modified derivative -- probably not so "natural." And in the case of agave nectar processing, there's already a bit of backlash brewing over what could be an excessively high ratio of fructose to glucose content in the final syrup.

The take-aways

We may not know enough about rebaudioside A or its healthy intake levels to make any conclusions about whether or not it's the new zero calorie sweetener "miracle." Only time and more research will tell -- as is the case for most food ingredients, additives and products in our history of eating. I applaud food scientists' desire to find and launch more natural alternatives. While they're listening to the changing desires of a more educated and health-conscious customer base, we also need to continue our education and be mindful in our food choices.

Processing, however, usually leads to "un-whole" foods. The concept of health-promoting "synergies" within whole foods discussed by Annemarie Colbin and Michael Pollan is crucial. There may be benefits that come from the combination of compounds in a carrot, or any other natural, whole food that science has yet to discover. Rather than relying on the latest processed food additive or supplement, it probably makes more sense to seek out, zone in on, and embrace whole foods in order to maximize great taste and optimal health. These are concepts that Western medical sciences, nutrition science, modern chemistry, etc. may not understand better than Mother Nature herself.

There's no silver bullet; no quick fixes. We can't depend on the next zero calorie sensation to bail us out of our obsession with sweetness nor our war with obesity. The bottom line is that we're a nation addicted to quick, super sweet, highly-processed foods and have created palates that are unhealthily skewed toward sugar. We don't need zero calorie sweetness, we just need less sweetness!

So instead of settling for highly processed nectar, syrups or extracts, I want to leave you with a few simple alternatives to solving a sweet tooth obsession.

  1. Gradually start to modify your palate and reduce your sugar cravings by introducing more whole foods and less processed foods that tend to contain refined sugars -- sugars we eventually fall addicted to. Additionally, try to soothe cravings with fresh and dried fruits and high quality dark chocolate.
  2. If you want to add sweetness to your yogurt, drinks (ex. tea or lemonade), smoothie, or cereal, try using less refined, more raw sugars such as molasses, sucanat (unrefined pure dried cane sugar juice), maple syrup (I use it to sweeten tea), barley syrup, rice syrup or date sugar.
  3. If your sweet tooth gets the best of you, go for the real thing, just not too much of it. Choose sodas with real sugar or natural sodas sweetened with real cane juice or honey. There are also plenty of carbonated options at health food stores and supermarkets.
  4. Remember to always: Keep it mindful, keep it whole, keep it real.
  5. Do you have a favorite sweetener? What have your experiences been with natural sweetener alternatives like agave and stevia? Please leave your thoughts below!

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