Is Stevia Safe? The FDA now approves GRAS status, but don’t let that fool you…

For a very long time Stevia (also known as Reb A and brand names, Truvia and PureVia) has been touted by alternative practitioners as a natural replacement to table sugar (sucrose).  Proponents claim it has been used extensively in Japan for thousands of years and therefore it "must be safe".

I am sure advocates for stevia are now in their glory with it finally gaining GRAS status by the FDA (GRAS means Generally Regarded As Safe).  And beverage companies are in a state of ecstasy.   But quite frankly, I am even more uncomfortable with it now than I was before it gained its GRAS status. Because now, something that may not be so great for us will be found in every bottle of Coke, Vitamin Water, and children's snack pack.

First, let me explain what stevia is and where it comes from.  Stevia, in the forms of stevioside and rebaudioside A, is found in the plant yerba dulce which is native to Brazil, Paraguay, and Southeast Asia, among other places.  It is about 100 times sweeter than table sugar and is considered to be a hopeful alternative to artificial sweeteners, since it is plant-derived.

While I do not like to favor the "conspiracy theorist" side of things and I think that if the FDA approves something, it probably is fairly safe to consume.  However, there have been times when the FDA has approved something (like pharmaceutical drugs, for example) that are later found to be hazardous and then pulled from the market.  In other words, the FDA can make mistakes from time to time.

And if you think that the FDA ran a few studies showing no harm caused by stevia and then decided to put the big stamp of approval on it, think again.  In the early 1990's stevia was rejected by the FDA to be used as a food ingredient.  Canada and a European Community panel also rejected Stevia claiming it was unsafe.  Studies at that point in time showed that stevia fed to rats decreased sperm count while increasing cell production in testicles, which could lead to infertility problems.  Pregnant hamsters fed large amounts of stevia had fewer and smaller offspring. A derivative of stevioside, steviol, can also be converted into a carcinogenic compound causing mutations in DNA. 

Now on the flip side, these studies used large doses of stevia, much larger than what we would consume.  But I often wonder if we can equate one large dose to thousands of small doses as being comparable.  Probably not, but worth a questioning thought. 

So what caused the FDA to have a change of heart?  Cargill and Merisant.  Both companies began developing derivatives of stevia, branding them Truvia and PureVia, respectively. 

And for those who haven't had the pleasure (I italicize with sarcasm) of tasting stevia, let me be the first to tell you it tastes awful and burns your throat.  I noticed about a week ago that Coca-Cola released a new version of Vitamin Water with only 10 calories a serving.  I looked at the list of ingredients and didn't notice stevia or any unnatural sweetener on the label, so I bought it, not realizing that stevia was in fact an ingredient.  When I went to drink it, I could not believe how artificial it tasted, only it had an even worse aftertaste than any artificial sweetener I ever tasted.  Then I noticed that my throat burned about the same way it would if I had had a menthol cough drop (only it was not as strong).  I thought maybe it was in my imagination, but then I gave a sip to my son and he complained he didn't like the Vitamin Water because it made his throat burn, and I knew it wasn't just my taste buds.

Ok, so going back to the beginning, let me summarize a bit.  First, just because other countries and cultures do something doesn't make it safe.  There are many unsafe practices that happen throughout the world.  When human safety and health are at stake, science needs to give evidence to safety, not tradition.  Second, just because something is natural, also doesn't make it safe.  Snake venom is "natural" and so is cocaine. 

And lastly, if not most important, having one more "substance" on the market that offers a low-calorie version of the original just does one thing; it is one more way to encourage people to continue to over-consume.  As we have seen in the last 30 years, low-fat, low-calorie and low-carb foods only encourage people to consume more food than they need…and at what price?

About Kimberly Dawson, M.S.

Leave a Reply