The Short and Sweet of Sugars vs. Sweeteners

If your one of those individuals (like me) who likes their coffee in a very particular way – milk first then boiling water – you would agree that the same goes for sweeteners – not all sweeteners are created equally. The markets are booming with sugar substitutes to suit varying needs. Let’s take a closer look into Stevia.

ZOOMING IN
Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana. Stevia can be found in the form of fresh leaves, dried leaves (chopped or powdered) and processed leaf extract resulting in a powder or liquid. It was developed in 2007 through a joint venture between Coca-Cola Co. and Cargill Inc. which is an agribusiness and commodity trading group, to ‘market a new calorie-free natural sweetener aimed at health-conscious consumers’.

Stevia’s Benefits
The active compounds of stevia which brings the sweetness are steviol glycosides (mainly stevioside and rebaudioside), which have more than 200 times the sweetness of sugar, are heat-stable, pH-stable, and non-fermentable. Stevia is considered a non-nutritive sweetener as it does not contain any calories and so it doesn’t affect blood glucose levels or contribute to one’s daily intake. This is a benefit to one’s health as individuals living with diabetes can control their blood sugar levels better and by reducing daily calorie intake can assist in weight loss which in turn can help reduce blood pressure, cardiovascular disease risk and strokes.

Stevia’s sweetness may take a little bit longer to be registered by the mouth but it has a longer duration than that of sugar, and some of its extracts may have a bitter or liquorice-like aftertaste at high concentrations. Generally it has a neutral taste and can be added successfully to foods.

It is stable on the shelf in dry form and more stable than aspartame or acesulfame K in liquid form. Stevia is used in a variety of food items such as to sweeten cereals, energy bars, and beverages without adding extra calories or as a tabletop sweetener. FUTURELIFE® ZERO contains Stevia as well as two other sweeteners namely sucralose and erythritol.

How much is too much?
The Accepted Daily Intake (ADI) and Estimated Daily Intake (EDI) of stevia is 4 mg/kg body weight and 1.3-3.4 mg/kg body weight respectfully. ADI is a measure of the amount of a specific substance in food or drinks that can be ingested orally on a daily basis over a lifetime without an significant health risk. For the average adult who weighs 60kg their ADI would be 240mg/day and an EDI of 78-204mg/day. As Stevia is so much sweeter it means that 7.5mg of Stevia equals about 1 teaspoon of sugar which means to reach to average ADI of a 60kg adult one would need to have 32 servings of stevia to exceed this recommendation.

What does the research say regarding safety?
It is important to consider the evidence of any food product out on the market. Five randomized controlled trials (Barriocanal and colleagues, 2008, Maki and colleagues, 2008, Ferri and colleagues, 2006, Gregerson and colleagues, 2004, and Hsieh and colleagues, 2003) examined the effects of stevia compared with placebo on metabolic outcomes or weight and reported minimal, if any effects on blood glucose and insulin levels, hypertension, and weight. However, the majority of trials were of small sample size and used varying doses of stevia. This was grade 2 or fair evidence. Therefore, more studies of greater quality are needed.

When it comes to sweeteners – consumers always want to know if they are safe to use. In 2008, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) allowed GRAS status for purified rebaudioside A, followed by stevioside. GRAS status means Generally Recognized As Safe which is a status label assigned by the FDA to a listing of substances not known to be hazardous to health and thus approved for use in foods.

There is currently little substantive research evidence of adverse pharmacological effects in humans. Such research that is available has been cast into doubt and indeed the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded in 2010 that these steviol glycosides ‘are not carcinogenic, genotoxic or associated with any reproductive/developmental toxicity’.

CONCLUSION
Overall, Stevia is a sweetener with many potential benefits as it is a non-nutritive sweetener not contributing calories and therefore can assist in reducing our daily energy intake to help with weight loss. It can be found in many forms and has the potential to be added into many food items. More research would be beneficial however, according to large trustworthy institutions such as the FDA it has been deemed safe to use.

REFERENCES

  1. http://za.steviadomain.com/resources/articles/stevia-rebiana-difference
  2. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:739-758.
  3. Thompson JL, Manore MM, Vaughan LA. Science of Nutrition. San Francisco: Pearson Education;2008.