by Marion Nestle
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?

  • Marion, is Stevia safe? CSPI had cited some studies that show it can damage the liver and didn’t believe that it should be allowed as a sugar substitute.

  • Is this also true of all stevia sweeteners as well? I don’t buy products with stevia in them, but I am fond of my liquid stevia extract for coffee and tea. Most of my friends don’t like the taste, but the fact that it doesn’t taste like sugar doesn’t bother me. But if the product itself were harmful because of the processing I would prefer not to use it, and rather grow stevia myself. Thank you for all your valuable information! I would love to hear a follow up on this.

  • Marion

    @Jessica and Karly — It’s hard to know whether Stevia is safe or not, as research is minimal. The FDA thinks the evidence that exists is sufficient to say that it is safe in the small amounts in which it is likely to be used. Personally, I prefer sugar, which is most definitely safe if you don’t pile it on.

  • Victoria

    I use stevia that I grow myself. But the only thing I use it for is in tea, espeically bitter teas like dandelion root. For some reason the stevia helps dampen the bitterness of the root, and the root dampens the wonky taste of the stevia.

    I wouldn’t drink soda made by a corporation, regardless of what sort of “natural” they put in it.

  • Steve

    Is sugar really that horrible that we have to go through all these hoops to manufacture a substitute?

    I guess I just don’t get the mentality that says this is the case…

  • Steve,
    You took the words right out of my mouth! Instead of substituting sugar why not eat less sugary tasting food… that would make this a non-issue.

  • Nancy

    Try telling that to a sugar addict. I am trying to wean my 84 yo mother off sweetened foods due to high blood sugar (pre-diabetes), and she doesn’t even get AT ALL how many products contain sugar, or “high fructose corn syrup”. This is the same deceptive advertising that got her to buy a “sugar free” cranberry juice, that in fact contained the equivalent of 9 teaspoons of sugar in an 8 ounce glass, thanks to the liberal use of apple and grape juices, the main ingredients! Oh, this all makes me too mad.

    Of course, those of us who are aware don’t eat and drink this junk. It’s the way it is marketed to fool the majority of mainstream Americans into thinking these products are a healthy alternative. As for Stevia, I don’t touch the processed variety. I do have a bottle of ground Stevia leaf, which I used to put in teas, but I simply don’t need them that sweet anyway, so I stopped using even that.

  • Amy

    If your mother made it to 84 (pre-diabetes or not), she’s done something right. If it were me, I’d let my mother eat what she wants and enjoy my remaining time with her.

  • Jon

    Sugar tastes better, and is fine in moderation. I mean, I’ve seen the best improvements in A1c in patients on a low-carb diet (as one would expect), but even I would say that jumping through hoops to produce techno-foods totally ignores the simple fact that you can moderate it.

    I wouldn’t buy a soda, stevia or not. They’re almost as useless to the cook as they are to the dietitian.

  • I don’t buy any presweetened beverages and try and avoid anything presweetened. If I’m going to add a sweetener to anything like coffee, ice tea, plain yogurt, or cereal; I want to control the amount that goes in and I will choose a natural sweetener like maple syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, or agave nectar. I’ve also found you don’t need much sweetener! A half a teaspoon typically does the trick! I personally don’t like the licorice aftertaste of stevia, but that’s just a personal preference.

    I also think we need to practice being less sweet-addicted and discover what food really tastes like. A perfectly-ripened grapefruit for example, tastes amazing sans sweetener of any kind.

  • April

    I find this discussion pretty fascinating – especially the part where you say “sugar, which is definitely safe if you don’t pile it on,” Marion. I am worried about Stevia’s safety – especially after the sweetener is turned from a green plant to a green powder to a white powder – that just can’t be “all natural.” And yet, sugar made from GMO sugar beets – how safe and natural could that be? I guess I agree with the sentiment behind your words, Marion, that seem to imply that anything that has withstood the test of time in careful moderation shouldn’t be too bad. However, for me personally, hot chocolate as an occasional afternoon pick me up would give me a definite downer an hour later if I used sugar as the sweetener – that’s not the case with stevia-sweetened. So any further info you have on stevia’s safety would really be welcome.

  • Jessica

    I just don’t understand. Why don’t people just drink a small glass of regular, freshly squeezed orange juice and call it a day? What is the deal?

  • “Stevia doesn’t taste like sugar. Companies have to fuss with it to cover up its off taste.” This is a problem that we faced years ago when trying to create Swerve Sweetener. Stevia also has a problem with it’s unstable sweetness cycle, it goes bitter/sweet/bitter, this is the nature of many herbs. This cycle is what gives stevia based products the strange after taste.

    The erythritol that many of these companies are using is only about 60% as sweet as sugar, so that is why they are adding the stevia (which is close to 300% as sweet as sugar.

    Erythritol is made by enzymatic processes where enzymes break-down natural foods that are a part of your everyday diet (fruits and vegetables). The process that we use to yield the white crystals is the introduction of microorganisms classified as “osmotolerant”. The non-GMO microorganisms are introduced, and during that 3 day “fermentation” process a white crystalline powder is formed. Those crystals are then purified with natural activated charcoal and ultrafiltration, no chemicals involved.

    Erythritol does not perform as well as sugar. Our proprietary formulation actually improves the characteristics of plain erythritol, overcoming these issues, enabling us to create a product unlike any other, with characteristics most like sugar – able to cook, bake, candy, freeze and brown like sugar.

  • Anthro

    I’m with those who ask, “why all the sweetener to begin with?” Even fresh-squeezed o.j. has a fair amount of sugar (we have it on Christmas as a very special treat–having something like that every day takes the special out of it). Me–I just eat the orange! What a concept! I also eat lots of greens and other veggies, so I get plenty of Vitamin C without on the sugars in fruit juice. Our culture is obsessed with beverages! Why can’t people drink water? I like club soda with a slice of lemon or cucumber (or both) and a good micro-brew now and then, but I am always amazed at a whole aisle being devoted to juice at supermarkets and coops alike.

    Stevia is awful just like Splenda and all the rest. I use good old cane sugar when I need it–in small quantities–only 20 or so calories per teaspoon, but lots of carbs in orange juice.

  • Andrew

    I would like to address the stevia safety question. It is my understanding that stevia based sweeteners have been in common use in Japan for at least the past 30 years with no serious public health consequences (definitely nothing as dramatic as the complaints about aspartame I have read) and the whole leaves of the plant have been used in central and south america for centuries. I believe stevia and minimally processed stevia extracts to be significantly safer than synthetic artifical sweeteners.

  • “Stevia Extract in the Raw” is mainly dextrose with a miniscule amount of Reb-A. Fauxvia (my personal name for Truvia) and Impurevia (ditto for PureVia) are 99+% erythritol with the remainder being Reb-A/Rebiana.

  • J Johnson

    Those who say “What’s the big deal? Just have orange juice, or one tsp of sugar!” really have NO understanding of the food battles some of us face.

    I don’t blame those people, by the way. Compulsive eating and struggles with food are not *rational*. I can entirely understand how it seems bizarre if you have not experienced it.

    To me, putting a bit of stevia into tea or oatmeal or homemade cocoa is a lifesaver. Sugar or even honey or maple syrup (if not placed into something very high fiber), can set me over the edge into white-knuckle craving-town.

    You know what is more dangerous than some theoretical processed stevia danger? Being obese, being diabetic, etc. Stevia is a tool to help me maintain my control over my eating, which for me (and for many people) isn’t just a matter of losing a few pounds but a constant, lifelong battle, even if and when we lose all the weight.

  • Anonymous

    Truvia is 99.3% erythritol (from Cargill’s GMO corn), .6% rebiana (a single stevia glycoside), and .1% “natural flavors”. Purevia is more or less the same.

    Stevia Supreme is stevia (with all the glycosides) and a hint of xylitol (extracted from birch tree bark).

    Truvia and PureVia uses methanol and ethanol to “purify” the rebiana. When heated, methanol turns to formaldehyde.

    Stevita Supreme uses water – and water alone – to extract the stevia glycosides.

    Truvia and PureVia are not natural. Stevita Supreme is.

    Truvia and PureVia give me side effects such as hershey squirts. Stevita Supreme is gentle on my stomach, and I have had no side effects whatsoever from it.

  • Anonymous

    Those studies were most likely funded by the sugar industry. It wouldn’t be the first time that Big Business paid scientists to do a biased “study”.

  • Hello Everybody,

    This is my personal story with Stevia. I made a video about it. I hope you enjoy it:

    I made the same video in Spanish too:

    Big hug to all.

    Laila Terra