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Is Stevia Safer Than Other Artificial Sweeteners?
The shrub Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, better known as Stevia, was first mentioned by the Spanish doctor and botanist Pedro Jaime Esteve (1500-1556), who found it in the northeast of the territory now called Paraguay.
Guarani Indians in this area as well as in southern Brazil have used “ka’a he’ê” (“sweet leaf”), as it is called in Guaraní, for hundreds of years as a sweetener in yerba mate, and several tribes have reported the use of this plant in fertility control women, using concentrated stevia infusions over a longer period.
It is precisely this contraceptive property that has been discussed in the scientific literature since the 70s of the last century. The reason is simple: who wants to consume a sweetener that suddenly makes you infertile?
The stevia leaf contains a complex mixture of glycosides (compounds in which one or more sugar molecules are attached to a non-carbohydrate part). These compounds give the leaves an intensely sweet taste, about 30-45 times sweeter than sucrose, the sweet substance of refined sugar. To date, ten different chemical compounds (chemically all steviol glycosides) have been isolated that are responsible for the plant’s sweet taste: stevioside, rebaudioside A, B, C, D, E and F, dulcoside A, rubusoside and steviolbioside. The highest concentration of the sweetening effect comes from stevioside and rebaudioside A, responsible for stevia extract being 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose with almost zero calories (about 0.2 calories per gram).
Both sweet steviol glycosides are chemically diterpene glycosides, substances consisting of two molecules of different types of sugar and a molecule called steviol. Steviol serves as the “backbone” of the chemical structure and is structurally similar to the plant hormones gibberellin and kaurene. Several studies show that these glycosides are – at least partially – metabolized in the body releasing sugar molecules and steviol.
Is it safe to use stevia instead of sugar?
It is this compound steviol that has attracted the attention of toxicologists for many years. In studies with bacteria and cell cultures, this compound has been shown to be genotoxic (ie capable of altering genetic information). However, more recent studies in mice, rats and hamsters have shown that relatively high concentrations of steviol are required to cause any significant damage to DNA, the molecule of life that contains all of our genetic information.
Browsing toxicology databases, there are hundreds of publications discussing possible adverse health effects of stevia extract, but the results are not very consistent. In particular, stevioside’s effects on fertility and potential carcinogenicity have been the subject of controversy in the scientific world. It was a study published in 1968 by Professor Joseph Kuc Purdue University in Indiana, USA, that started the controversial debate about stevia and fertility. Prof. Kuc found a clear contraceptive effect in female rats given high doses of stevia. Fertility rates of rats dropped to 79 percent.
Although the outcome of this study was not confirmed by other scientific groups, the study published in 1999 by Prof. Melis from the University of Sao Paulo also reported a reduction in sperm count in male rats after administration of high doses of stevia glycosides. Concerns about carcinogenicity or mutagenicity have not been confirmed in the vast majority of toxicological studies.
Although stevia’s adverse health effects have never been directly tested in humans, authorities in the United States, Canada, and the European Union have deemed stevia extracts unsafe for use as a tabletop sweetener due to a lack of long-term toxicology studies. In contrast, authorities in other countries such as Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Mexico have a different point of view and accept the use of stevia extract as a natural sweetener. In several other countries, particularly in Latin America and Asia, stevia and its extracts are available with unverified regulatory status. In Japan, stevia extracts have been commercially available since 1971 as a tabletop sweetener and there are no reports of health problems associated with this product.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of stevia extract as a “dietary supplement”, but not as a tabletop sweetener. Only the glycoside Rebaudioside A in its pure form is considered “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS), as of December 2008. In contrast, Stevioside, the other major compound of stevia extract, has not been recognized as GRAS by the FDA.
In Canada and the European Union (EU), the use of stevia as a table sweetener was banned based on the fact that there was insufficient evidence to prove its safety. But now this situation is likely to change. In April 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) carried out a new assessment of available toxicological data. As a result of this review, Steviosides and stevia extracts in general are now considered safe when used as tabletop sweeteners – at least under certain conditions.
EFSA established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 4 mg per kilogram of body weight for stevioside, the same ADI recommended by the World Health Organization according to a WHO document published in 2008. Generally speaking, an adult weighing 70 kg can consume 280 mg of stevia extract every day without any health risks. Since stevia extract is about 250 times sweeter than table sugar, an adult can replace 70 grams of refined sugar with stevia extract per day. This is equivalent to about 4-5 tablespoons or about 20 teaspoons of sugar. As children have a lower body weight, the dose should be reduced in proportion to their weight.
It is interesting to compare these data with aspartame, the most widely used synthetic table sweetener globally. Food safety authorities around the world set acceptable daily intake (ADI) values for aspartame at 40 mg/kg body weight based on the 1980 recommendation of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). This means that – strictly based on available toxicological data – stevia is considered to be about 10 times more “toxic” than aspartame.
Although the sweetener Stevia is a product isolated from the plant and not a product of a classic chemical process, criticism is never out of place, because “natural” does not necessarily mean risk-free. In conclusion, stevia extracts can be considered safe if not consumed in large quantities. The common notion that this “natural” product is safer than other commercially available tabletop sweeteners is not supported by available toxicological information.
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