Your Facebook questions answered: What’s the story on stevia and Truvia?

“Rosie, Can you do an article on Stevia and stevia based sugar replacements like Truvia? I am reading conflicting information on the web, between doctors and dietitians believe it? It is hard to tell if the concerns about the GM corn based filler in Truvia are legit, or if its more anti-Monsanto anti-GM hoopla,”  asks Enlightened Eater Facebook fan Jennifer Hayes.

Jennifer, one thing is for sure:  there is a lot of conflicting information on the web. Another is that there is  an incredible amount of misinformation out there as well.

The Washington-based consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest  (CSPI) (which also has a Canadian branch) is one source   I trust when it comes to reviewing the science on sweeteners.

I was involved with this group years ago when I was fighting the introduction of the fake fat, Olestra, in Canada. I saw first-hand how their toxicologists  assess studies from the animals used, their ages, whether they are susceptible to certain diseases and the length of the studies.  I have to say that I was very impressed and learned a lot about how research can be conducted. By the way, Olestra was never allowed in the food supply in Canada.

Now back to stevia.  Because it is produced from the stevia leaf and is natural, many assume it has to be safe.  When you hear this claim, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that arsenic is also natural.

In their section called Chemical Cuisine which looks at various additives and sweeteners in food, CSPI  provides a wealth of information. They  point out that stevia leaves are about 30 times as sweet as sugar, and contain sweet substances called steviol glycosides that are 200–300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevioside and rebaudioside A, also called reb A or rebiana, are two of these compounds.

While  deeming it to be safe, CSPI states , “The one nagging concern (other than taste) about rebiana is that several (but not all) genetic tests found that rebiana-related substances caused mutations and other forms of genotoxicity. Because such findings may indicate a cancer risk, that should have spurred the FDA to require additional animal feeding studies. Testing guidelines for new ingredients generally call for two-year feeding studies in two rodent species, but rebaudioside A has only been tested in rats, but not mice.”

As rebiana has a less than pleasing aftertaste, the stevia-based tabletop sweetener, Truvia, uses the sugar-alcohol, erythritol, to mask this. Sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and mannitol,  used as sweetening agents in various products such as gum and candies,  are not without side effects. In larger amounts –which varies from person to person – there can be gastrointestinal side effects such as bloating, gas and diarrhea. Erythritol seems to be tolerated in larger amounts than other sugar alcohols but it’s still linked to nausea for some.

As for the source of erythritol, while it does come from corn, the makers of Truvia state that the product  does not contain  any genetically modified ingredients.

But whatever  sweetener you use, especially in a processed food, if you’re using significant amounts, you may want to revamp your food style.  Consider your whole dietary pattern and what kinds of foods are on your menu.  Whole minimally processed foods containing an assortment of naturally-occurring flavours  are your best route to good health.

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Do you use sweeteners? What’s your take on these products? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Your Facebook questions answered: What’s the story on stevia and Truvia?”

  1. June 5, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    When my husband was diagnosed with diabetes in the late 80`s, I tended to work with sweeteners to reduce sugar load in baked goods. Fairly quickly I became disenchanted with the after taste of most of the sweeteners & the less than sterling results in foods that didn’t have enough acidity to mask the aftertaste, while allowing the desired level of sweetness. We always used less sugar in baking already (usually 50% of what the recipe called for), and I have gradually just continued along that route, also reducing the salt in many cases so less sugar is required for a sweet taste. In a number of applications I will use fruit purees for sweetening. My favourite quote from above is ..”Because it is produced from the stevia leaf and is natural, many assume it has to be safe. When you hear this claim, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that arsenic is also natural.” Stevia is still a high intensity sweetener with only certain fractions approved as you have noted – not really natural at all in the minimally processed sense. Good article

    • June 5, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

      Thanks for your comments, Paulette! Your feedback is greatly appreciated. I’m glad you liked the point about natural. Unfortunately calling something natural sways so many people. It sounds as though you’ve put a lot of work into making your baked goods taste great. We would be in better shape as a nation if everyone put as much towards healthier eats!

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