by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Stevia

Apr 29 2009

Is Stevia really “natural?”

The April 26 New York Times Magazine carried a seductive ad on page 15 for PepsiCo’s “Trop50 orange juice goodness with 50% less calories and sugar…And no artificial sweeteners”  PepsiCo performs this miracle by diluting the juice by half with water (really, you could do this at home).  But in case the result isn’t sweet enough for you, Trop50 adds the sweetener, Stevia.

PepsiCo can get away with claiming that its juice drink has no artificial sweeteners.  Because Stevia is isolated from leaves of the Stevia plant, the FDA lets companies claim it is “natural.”

We can debate whether a chemical sweetener isolated from Stevia leaves is really “natural” but here’s another problem: Stevia doesn’t taste like sugar.  Companies have to fuss with it to cover up its off taste.  And, they must do so “without detracting from the perceived benefits of its natural status.”  Flavor companies are working like mad to find substances that block Stevia’s bitter taste, mask its off flavors, and extend its sweetness, while staying within the scope of what the FDA allows as “natural.”

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a Stevia PR representative eager for me to see the company’s website.  “Naturally delicious” anyone?

Dec 19 2008

FDA approves Stevia

It’s beginning to look like the FDA is getting in as many “midnight” approvals as it can before the new adminstration kicks in.  First it loosened its advisory on eating fish, and now it has told Cargill, the maker of the Truvia brand of the artificial sweetener Stevia, that it’s OK for the company to market it.  I guess the FDA must have resolved its doubts about the science supporting the safety of Stevia, even though much of it was corporate-sponsored.  But CSPI still has doubts.  Or maybe the FDA just didn’t have the strength to stop soft drink companies from marketing Stevia-sweetened drinks with or without FDA approval.  CSPI can’t understand the rush.  Why not?  It’s politics as usual, alas.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the reason for the rush is to get products with this “natural” sweetener on the market now.  Coke is coming out with Sprite Green and Odwalla juice drinks, and Pepsi will market SoBe Lifewater and an orange drink called Trop50.  They must thing they are on to something.  Stevia does have its supporters.  Me?  I’ll take sugar anytime.

April 15, 2009 update: Stevia products are on the market and competing vigorously for market share, as discussed by Kim Severson in the New York Times.

Jul 19 2008

Truvia/Stevia safety research!

Sherry Weiss Poall of the RF Binder agency, which does public relations for Cargill, was kind enough to send me the collection of research studies the company is using to demonstrate the safety of Truvia/Stevia. The studies just came out in a supplement to Food and Chemical Toxicology, July 2008. Journal supplements typically are paid for by the research sponsor, in this case, Cargill. The authors of the dozen or so papers are scientists at Cargill and Coca-Cola or “independent” scientists who were paid for their work by Cargill “for consulting services and manuscript preparation.” The papers cover the chemistry and metabolism of stevia, its effects on human blood pressure and diabetes (none reported), and its effects on rats (minimal problems and only at absurdly high doses). Their entirely predictable conclusion: Truvia/Stevia is safe.

Stevia is a plant extract.  It isn’t poison ivy, it’s been around for awhile, and it ought to be safe. But sponsored research always raises questions about the objectivity of the science, especially when the papers read like press releases, which these do. I can’t wait to see what the FDA makes of all this. In the meantime, it’s on the market as an unapproved product.

Jul 17 2008

Cargill’s Truvia (Stevia) comes to town

I missed the Rockefeller Center launch of Cargill’s new sweetener, Truvia, but the press people followed up by sending me a sensational press kit in a gorgeous garden tote, complete with gloves. What can I say. It’s another artificial sweetener (OK, it’s an extract of plant leaves, which they claim makes it “natural”), this time in a little green packet. The press kit included a chocolate bar “made with Truvia natural sweetener.” It tasted like a dark bitter chocolate of the waxy type. Andy Bellatti of Small Bites, who works in my department, pulled out a Lindt dark chocolate bar for comparison. Truvia 191 calories vs. Lindt 210. No contest, I’d say. One thing intrigues. The packets and chocolate have Nutrition Facts labels, but the FDA has never approved Stevia so it’s been marketed as a dietary supplement with Supplement Facts labels. Reports are that the FDA is considering its approval as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).  But to date the FDA has not approved it.  How is Cargill getting away with this? It plans to team up with Coca-Cola to seek international approval for it on the basis of research which they claim demonstrates its safety. But neither the website nor the press kit give the protocols for the studies or the actual data so it’s hard to judge. Cargill says it worked with FDA on this. FDA is letting Cargill use a Nutrition Facts label? On an unapproved product? Well, Cargill is a giant company and I guess it knows how to get what it wants. Oh. And how does Truvia taste? Sweet, with a bitter aftertaste. Is everyone waiting for this? Or is it just me who prefers sugar?

Jan 4 2008

Stevia is coming (maybe)

Coca-Cola and Cargill have teamed up to start marketing the sweetener, Stevia, in countries that allow it, places like Brazil and China. Europe and the U.S. do not allow it as a food additive although the U.S. permits its use as a dietary supplement. The FDA says companies have not produced evidence that the substance is safe; it considers Stevia an “unsafe food additive” and any product containing it to be adulterated. The entry on Stevia in Wikipedia explains most of what all this is about. Concerns about the safety of Stevia have not stopped Coca-Cola from filing 24 patent applications or petitioning the FDA for approval. Interesting, no?