Are you wondering whether stevia, the natural, virtually calorie-free sweetener, is safe to use? Until recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed stevia to be labeled only as a dietary supplement—not as a sweetener-pending further research. And now stevia is cropping up everywhere-as a sweetener (marketed under brand names such as Sweetleaf, Truvia and PureVia) an additive in yogurt...and in soft drinks, such as Sprite Green made by Coca-Cola and Trop50, from Tropicana, a PepsiCo subsidiary. It's no wonder that people have questions.

That the FDA has given stevia the go-ahead is a good thing, but I wonder why it took so long.

Stevia has been used in the natural-medicine community for several decades. (I've been using it to sweeten beverages and shakes for the past 20 years.)

What Is Stevia?

An herb in the chrysanthemum family, Stevia rebaudiana, as the species is known, grows wild in Paraguay and Brazil. Its extract is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. For centuries, it was used in South America in medicinal teas and as a sweetener. In Japan, stevia has been safely used since the early 1970s as an alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Coca-Cola and a manufacturing company then teamed up to develop products using a stevia extract as a sweetener. Later, the FDA approved the use of rebaudioside A (Reb A), an extract of the stevia leaf, as a sweetener, giving it "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) status, a designation for substances or chemicals that are added to foods that are considered safe by experts. I don't think it's a coincidence that in previous years, the FDA didn't think there was enough research to give stevia a nod as a sweetener, but then when the soft drink giants got behind the herb, the FDA did as well.

Health Benefits

In studies, stevia was found to lower blood pressure in people with mild hypertension and to reduce blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes, although the amount of stevia used in the studies was higher than the amount most people use when sweetening beverages Also, an extract from stevia leaves was found to contain antioxidant polyphenols (free radical-reducing compounds found in plants), including quercitrin, apigenin and kaempferol, which may protect against DNA damage. People who use stevia as a sweetener will get small amounts of these antioxidants. Studies have shown that stevia does not negatively affect reproductive health, as was previously believed.

My Advice

Because stevia does not affect glucose levels, it is a good choice for people with diabetes. Because it is practically calorie free, it's a healthful alternative to sugar for people with weight problems or for anyone who uses artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to health problems, such as headaches, diarrhea, seizures and even cancer.

Stevia, which can have a licorice-like aftertaste, is available in liquid, powder and tablet form.

Advantage: You can also bake with it. Follow the conversion instructions on the label of products that contain stevia powder.

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