Zero-Calorie Sweetener Gets Thumbs Up from FDA

Just as more news about the importance of limiting sugar comes to light, a “new” alternative sweetener gets approval to enter the market. Manufacturers of a purified extract of the stevia plant (called rebaudioside A, or rebiana) have gotten the go ahead from the FDA to list the product as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for human consumption as a general purpose sweetener.

Stevia has been available on the market for years, but until now has always been categorized as an herbal supplement, which has limited its uses, especially by food manufacturers. Results of independent research assessing the extract’s safety has enabled one manufacturer to sell stevia-based products as a food product rather than a supplement. Findings published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology concluded that rebiana has no negative effects on general health or organ function, does not affect blood pressure, has no effect on blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes, and has no adverse effects on reproductive health or the health of offspring.

Nearly natural

The new sweeteners are plant based, obtained from a shrub native to Paraguay and a member of the chrysanthemum family. However, as with all herbal extracts, products may vary widely, particularly as there are more than 200 varieties of the stevia plant. The makers of one of the new products (Truvia™) claim their proprietary process for isolating rebiana from the mother plant results in a superior sweetener without the aftertaste common to many stevia products. Still, the sweetener tastes best when added to citrus drinks; a winning cola formulation sweetened with rebiana has yet to be discovered.

During the extraction and isolation process of rebiana, the product has to survive a multitude of processes to arrive at its final form as a natural sweetener. So while rebiana may be considered by some to be a cut above wholly artificial sweeteners, whether it will be fully embraced by all as a natural sweetener remains to be seen.

Food for thought

When thinking about sugar alternatives, consider these points.

• The glycemic index, a measure of the blood sugar-raising effects of a food, can vary widely by sugar type; palm sugar has a relatively low glycemic index of 35, compared with 64 for table sugar. While rebiana has no calories and boasts a zero on the glycemic index scale, it should be used in moderation since there are no long-term studies with large amounts.

• Do you really need a sweetener at all? Sugar cravings can be a sign of an underlying nutrient deficiency. Check with your natural health care professional to see what your diet might be lacking that’s causing you to reach for sweets. Once you cut down on sugar-laden foods and drinks, the natural sweetness of the other foods can come out. Many people find that a little fresh cream goes a long way towards taking the edge off the morning coffee.

(US Food & Drug Administration website:

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND

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