Questions and answers about stevia sweeteners.
What is stevia?
Stevia rebaudiana is a shrub native to South America. Its leaves have been used there for centuries to sweeten beverages. It is also an approved food additive in other countries, including Japan, Brazil, and China.
In the U.S., stevia products were long sold as dietary supplements -- but not as a food additives or ingredients -- because of safety concerns. In 2008, the FDA stated that the use of a refined stevia preparation called Rebiana is "generally recognized as safe," and can be used as a food ingredient. Products include, Good & Sweet, PureVia, Reb A, SweetLeaf Stevia Sweetener, Sun Crystals (which combines stevia and sugar), and Truvia.
Fresh stevia leaves can be found at many farmers markets. The FDA now also allows certain refined stevia preparations to be used in food and drinks.
What does it taste like?
Stevia-based sweeteners have zero calories, yet are as much as 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). Some products may have a bitter taste.
Are stevia sweeteners artificial?
"I think that the FDA didn’t require good-enough testing," Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says in an email to WebMD. "That said, [Rebiana] is probably safe.”
In April 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced that studies showed no risk of toxicity from highly purified stevia sweeteners. The CSPI still argues that more testing of these products is warranted.
Can stevia sweeteners be used in baking?
Yes, they can. Many product web sites have conversion charts to help.
How does stevia compare with other sugar substitutes?
Here is an overview of various sugar substitutes, including stevia.
What is it: Two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine; and methanol. Brand names are Equal and NutraSweet.
How it's used: Equal tabletop sweetener, diet soft drinks such as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, some sugar-free desserts, including gelatin desserts, yogurt, and puddings.
Advantages: Tastes similar to sugar. Enhances sweet flavors, especially fruit flavors.
Drawbacks: Should not be consumed by people with phenylketonuria (PKU). Controversy continues about whether aspartame is linked to increased cancer rates. Government agencies say it is safe. A recent study from an Italian cancer institute found more lymphomas and leukemia in rats fed very large amounts of aspartame. The CSPI recommends avoiding it.
What is it: Benzoic sulfinide.
How it's used: Sweet'N Low tabletop sweetener, Tab diet cola, salad dressings, baked goods, canned fruit.
Advantages: Less expensive than other artificial sweeteners. Stable at high temperatures, so can be used for baking. Passes through the body unaltered.
Drawbacks: After studies in the early 1970s linked saccharin consumption to bladder cancer in rats, all food containing saccharin was required to carry a warning label. But studies in humans showed no consistent evidence that saccharin causes bladder cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The warning label is no longer required. The CSPI advises avoiding saccharin because of studies that link it to cancer in rodents.