June 5, 2008 -- Splenda. NutraSweet. Sweet'N Low. Equal. Those no-calorie sweeteners may soon have new competition made from stevia, a shrub native to South America.
Stevia isn't new. It's been used for centuries as a sweetener in South America and is used Japan.
Truvia, a new stevia product developed by Cargill and Coca-Cola, isn't settling for supplement status. It's set to debut later this year as a tabletop sweetener and ingredient in certain Coca-Cola products.
Truvia will have competition. Pepsi has its own stevia product in the works, and stevia supplements may look to move into the mainstream. All that buzz could spice up the competition for your sweet tooth.
But are the safety issues settled for good?
There's no shortage of no-calorie sweeteners on the market. The FDA has approved five artificial ones:
- Aspartame: Brand names include NutraSweet and Equal.
- Sucralose: Brand name is Splenda.
- Saccharin: Brand names include Sweet'N Low, Sweet Twin, and Necta Sweet.
- Acesulfame-K: Brand names include Sunett and Sweet One.
- Neotame: Approved for use as an ingredient in a wide variety of foods including baked goods, soft drinks, chewing gum, jams, and syrups.
Truvia differs from those products because it's natural, and it differs from current stevia products because it's backed by extensive safety studies, notes Ann Tucker, Cargill's communications director.
Those studies, published in the advance online edition of Food and Chemical Toxicology, show no signs of the possible health issues -- such as blood pressure, blood sugar, and reproductive effects -- that have been noted in some, but not all stevia studies done mainly on animals.
In the Cargill and Coca-Cola funded studies, Truvia didn't affect blood pressure in healthy people or blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. Further tests in rats show no effects on reproduction, fertility, or other health problems.
When Will Truvia Debut?
"Is it a go? Yes, it's a go," Cargill spokeswoman Ann Tucker says of Truvia. But she can't say exactly when Truvia will be available.
"That's the gazillion-dollar question," says Tucker, adding that Truvia will get a "rigorous review" by the scientific community before it hits the market.
The FDA says it will review Truvia's case to be considered "generally recognized as safe," which would pave the way for it to become the first stevia product allowed as a food additive in the U.S.
Perspective of a Watchdog Group
"No company was able to demonstrate its safety to FDA," David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), tells WebMD. "Now maybe Cargill has done that. Maybe."
The CSPI hasn't been sweet on stevia because of possible safety issues.
"For good reason, FDA and a lot of other industrialized countries have not allowed it to be used as a food additive until these safety questions have been resolved. That's what Cargill thinks they've done ... at least with the extract that they're selling," says Schardt.
"We've always told consumers you're not going to drop dead if you use it [stevia] to sweeten your tea," says Schardt. "But there is concern about using it as a food additive, putting it into a lot of products that are sold to millions of people."
The CSPI's verdict on Truvia isn't in yet. But Schardt is cautiously optimistic. "We hope that the stevia extract does prove to be safe."
Sweetness in Moderation
Nutritionist Elaine Magee, MPH, RD -- WebMD's "Recipe Doctor" and the author of Food Synergy -- has blogged about her "wait and see" view of stevia.
"No matter what the alternative sweetener, including stevia, I would recommend moderation," Magee writes in an email. "I think that it tricks our body to taste sweetness and to not get the carbohydrates absorbed in the bloodstream that the body then expects. For some people I suspect this can bring on cravings or overeating later, perhaps."
That probably doesn't happen with "smaller amounts (like one diet soda a day)," writes Magee. "But there are people who have many diet sodas a day. This then also displaces more healthful beverages like green tea, water, or nonfat or low-fat milk."
Stevia Competition Heats Up
Pepsi plans to put its own highly purified, zero-calorie, all-natural stevia sweetener -- which doesn't have a name yet -- in various new products after it's approved by the FDA, PepsiCo spokesman David DeCecco tells WebMD in an email.
Meanwhile, a Seattle company called Zevia is already marketing Zevia, a carbonated dietary supplement containing stevia. The company touts its product as "the world's only all natural sugar-free alternative to diet soda." But Zevia hasn't bucked the "dietary supplement" label.
Zevia President and CEO Derek Newman tells WebMD in an email that the company has perfected the stevia taste with Zevia.
"I would be shocked if Cargill's product is nearly as good," he writes.
In a statement emailed by Tucker, Zanna McFerson, business director for Cargill Health and Nutrition, says, "There are many stevia blends available as dietary supplements today. We cannot comment on all the variations and only know that we consistently offer a safe, pure, and consistent product."
Truvia's research may not apply to other stevia products, notes Schardt.
"If you believe Cargill, the research establishing its safety is on a particular extract, a pure extract [Truvia], and that it doesn't necessarily apply to something else that's not quite the same. So that's an issue that I guess FDA is going to have to address," says Schardt.