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Is Stevia Safer Than Other Artificial Sweeteners?
The shrub Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, commonly known as Stevia, was first reported by the Spanish physician and botanist Pedro Jaime Esteve (1500-1556) who found it in the northeast of what is now Paraguay.
The Guaraní Indians of this region as in southern Brazil have been using “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 the plant of this in controlling women’s fertility by applying concentrated Stevia infusions for prolonged periods.
This very contraceptive property has been discussed since the 70s until today in the scientific literature. 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 where one or more sugar molecules are attached to a non-carbohydrate moiety). These compounds give the leaves an intensely sweet taste, about 30-45 times sweeter than sucrose, the sweet substance in refined sugar. To date, ten different chemical compounds (chemically, all steviol glycosides) responsible for the plant’s sweet taste have been isolated: 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 steviol glycosides are chemically diterpene glycosides, substances composed 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 – at least in part – are metabolized in the body releasing the sugar molecules and steviol.
Is it safe to use stevia instead of sugar?
It was precisely this steviol compound that for many years attracted the attention of toxicologists. In studies with bacteria and in cell cultures, this compound has been shown to be genotoxic (ie capable of changing 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 our genetic information.
Browsing toxicology databases, there are hundreds of publications discussing the possible negative health effects of stevia extract, but the results are not very consistent. In particular, the effects on fertility and possible carcinogenicity of Steviosides have been the subject of controversy in the scientific world. It was a study published in 1968 by Professor Joseph Kuc of Purdue University in Indiana, USA, that started a controversial debate about stevia and fertility. Professor Kuc detected a clear contraceptive effect in female rats given high doses of stevia. The rats’ fertility rates were reduced by up to 79 percent.
Although the result of this study was not confirmed by other scientific groups, a study published in 1999 by Professor Melis of the University of São Paulo also reported a decrease in sperm count in male rats after the application 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 actually been tested directly 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 view and have accepted the use of stevia extracts as a natural sweetener. In many other countries, particularly in Latin America and Asia, Stevia and its extracts are available with and without verified regulatory status. In Japan, Stevia extracts have been commercially available since 1971 as a table 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 extracts as a “dietary supplement” but not as a tabletop sweetener. Only the glycoside Rebaudioside A in its pure form is considered a “Generally Recognized as Safe Substance” (GRAS), as of December 2008. In contrast, stevioside, the other main compound in Stevia extracts, has not been recognized as GRAS by the FDA.
In both Canada and the European Union (EU), the use of stevia as a table-top sweetener was banned due to the fact that there was insufficient evidence to prove its safety. But now this situation will probably change. In April 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) carried out a new assessment of the available toxicological information. As a result of this review, Stevioside and Stevia extracts in general are now considered safe when used as a tabletop sweetener – at least under certain conditions.
EFSA established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 4 mg per kg body weight of steviosides, the same ADI recommended by the World Health Organization according to a WHO document published in 2008. In general terms, a 70 kg adult can consume each day 280 mg of Stevia extract without running any health risks. As stevia extract is about 250 times sweeter than table sugar, an adult can replace daily 70 grams of refined sugar with stevia extract. 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 according to their weight.
It is interesting to compare this data with aspartame, the world’s most widely used synthetic table-top sweetener. Food safety authorities around the world have set acceptable daily intake (ADI) values for aspartame at 40 mg/kg body weight based on a recommendation of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives of 1980 (Food and of Agriculture of the United Nations). This means that – strictly based on the toxicological information available – stevia is considered to be about 10 times more “toxic” than aspartame.
Although Stevia sweetener is a product isolated from a plant and not a product of a classical chemical process, it is never wrong to be critical, because “natural” does not necessarily mean harmless. In conclusion, stevia extracts can be considered safe if not consumed in large amounts. The common notion that this “natural” product is safer than other commercially available table-top sweeteners is not supported by available toxicological information.
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