Stevia: Plenty of Sweet Talk But No Answers! – Fresh Tastes by Bev

By Bev Laumann, Author of A Taste of The Good Life: A Cookbook for IC & OAB


Does the very thought of food with artificial sweeteners in it make you cringe? Me too. I’ve always been wary of these synthetic sugar replacements. Since my IC diagnosis in 1990 however, I’ve had more than skepticism motivating me to stay away from the stuff…. I’ve had some pretty severe bladder pain. I spend all night in the bathroom if I so much as taste a speck of aspartame or saccharin. So when I decided to try out something new– something sweet that’s not a naturally occurring sugar– I had to crank up my courage. This summer I got brave and tried two popular products: Splenda (a new FDA-approved food sweetener), and stevia (a dietary supplement with centuries of use as a food sweetener in South America). In last month’s column I talked about Splenda, and this month I recount my adventures with stevia.

I first heard of the sweet-tasting herb, stevia, back in 1996. Though it’s been used as a food sweetener in Paraguay for a long time, its first introduction to the U.S. market was in the 1980’s. No sooner had the herb arrived here than various importers began touting it to consumers. It was boldly marketed as a food sweetener and alternative to FDA approved artificial food sweeteners. Stevia cookbooks appeared. Natural foods markets enthusiastically began to carry stevia products. The herb began attracting media and consumer attention. It also attracted the attention of the FDA. In the mid-80’s the FDA made a drastic move, limiting its import and calling it an “unsafe food additive”. Which is why you won’t find stevia products in the sugar and sweetener section of your local market.

Now before I tell you about my own recent adventures with this sweet-tasting herb, I have to let you know that today stevia is still not government approved as a sweetener for food. It can’t be sold as a food or food additive, or used in food products. So don’t look for it in your local supermarket. Don’t even look in the sweetener section of a natural foods grocery store such as Whole Foods. You may however, find it tucked in between the bottles of vitamins, herbs, and tonics in a health food store. But more on the research and the international regulatory situation later.

Stevia rebaudiana is a perennial herb in the same family as daisies, according to a Pacific Northwest importer of the plants, Log House Plants. It can grow in the U.S. in mild climate areas and can reach 4 to 5 feet in height. The company has begun importing stevia plants for sale in nurseries on the West Coast. (A nurseryman at a store here in California says sales of the plant have been “very good”.) This bright green tender-leafed plant is native to Paraguay in South America where it has sweetened food products for centuries. The Guarana of Paraguay were the people responsible for discovering its sweet properties. Today they still use stevia leaves to sweeten a bitter, caffeine-rich local beverage and various folk medicine concoctions.

To prepare it for sale or use in the traditional way, the leaves of the stevia plant are collected and dried, then crushed to a powder. You may see this light brown powder sold in bags or bottles. Of all of the stevia plant, only the leaves are sweet. The stems and leaf veins tend to be bitter and so are not included in high-quality stevia leaf products. The fresh green leaves can also be brewed to make a tea.

“How does stevia affect IC?”, you may wonder. Well, I can’t tell you how it would affect yours, but here’s my story. For my first experiment I bought a small stevia plant and harvested the fresh green leaves, carefully picking out the large veins and stems. I heated a cup of hot water and immersed the leaves, just like I was brewing a cup of tea. After a couple of minutes I strained out the leaves and gave it a taste. It was pleasantly sweet all right… but had a definite aftertaste. The only way to describe the aftertaste is to say that it tasted like a freshly cut lawn smells. I managed to finish the cup and waited to see if it would flare my bladder. It didn’t. But that “grazing-in-the-grass” flavor was a real turn-off as far as I was concerned. I decided to skip trying the dried stevia leaf powder. (Who wants to experience a grazing- in-the-dead-grass flavor?)

So my next experiment was with stevia extract. Stevia extract is a white powder consisting mainly of the glucoside compounds (stevioside) in stevia leaves. It’s the stuff responsible for the sweet taste. Stevia extract is not only sweet, but calorie-free because it is not a sugar. Stevia extract is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, too. To give you an idea of its sweetness, I can use a couple teaspoons of sugar to sweeten a cup of my favorite herb tea. One-twentieth of a teaspoon of stevia extract did the same job. The same amount of extract also adequately sweetened a cup of low-acid decaffeinated coffee. With the coffee however, I noticed a curious effect. A very slight numbness developed in the tip of my tongue as I continued to sip on the warm coffee over the course of half an hour. After I stopped drinking the coffee the peculiar sensation on my tongue disappeared gradually over a few minutes. In both the herb tea and the coffee, the extract didn’t seem to have that “grassy” aftertaste that the fresh leaves had. My bladder flared up a bit a couple hours later, but that could be the residual caffeine in the coffee, which I know my bladder is sensitive to.

A couple of days later I tried stevia extract on buttered toast. I made the toast and sprinkled about one-sixteenth of a teaspoon of stevia extract on top. It tasted pretty good. Sweet and no grassy aftertaste. But I did notice a bit of a sour note… something reminiscent of licorice with an acid twang. That might be a plus if I was trying to create a low-acid, low calorie, sweet-and-sour sauce. But I didn’t care for it on the toast. Perhaps I used too much… instructions on the bottle said it wouldn’t have a bitter aftertaste “when used sparingly”. It would be hard to use it much more sparingly than I was though!

After trying the extract on toast I sat back and waited to see if this more concentrated form of stevia made my bladder react. For the first two hours nothing happened. After that, I my bladder was definitely more painful for a few hours, but it wasn’t nearly as bad or as prolonged a flare-up as I would have experienced had I used aspartame or saccharin.

Now what about using stevia in cooked food? Well, it has some advantages and some limitations. First of all, sugar does more than just sweeten food. It often contributes to a chemical reaction that gives the food its unique characteristics. Take bread for instance. Sugar helps nourish the yeast, which in turn makes the bread rise. Stevia extract can’t be utilized by the yeast. No yeast growth, no gas bubbles. No gas bubbles, no bread rising. Sugar can also add volume and texture. Think of a cake frosting. You could replace a cup of sugar’s sweetness with 1/3 teaspoon of stevia extract, but that wouldn’t make good frosting.

Numerous companies import or manufacture stevia extract and quite a few of them have web sites. A quick search using the word “stevia extract” with any search engine will bring up a bunch of them. Many of these web sites have recipes and/or advice for using stevia extract in cooking. The consensus among them is that stevia extract seems to hold up well to the heat of cooking.

Finally, the big question: how safe is stevia? The brand of stevia extract I experimented with, Sweet Leaf (Manufactured by Wisdom Herbs of Mesa Arizona), says on its label “safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics”. A couple of other brands carry similar statements and such claims are regularly seen on web sites. Despite disclaimers to the effect that it’s not meant to treat any illness or disease, manufacturers’ web sites clearly market stevia to people treating themselves for various conditions. Clever wording and web site structure skirts FDA regulations but manages to target people with conditions such as Candida albicans infections, diabetes, hypoglycemia, tooth decay, and obesity. One piece of promotional literature even claimed that stevia increases mental alertness, improves digestion, and regulates blood pressure.

Scant research has been done with stevia or its extract and one main reason is purely economic: because stevia exists in nature, it cannot be patented. With no patent protection, a company would have to expend millions of dollars on extensive toxicological testing to satisfy the FDA, only to find itself unable to charge the higher prices needed to recoup the money. Competition from other companies that had not expended research dollars, would act to keep prices– and profits– down.

Arguments that stevia has been used for centuries by South American indigenous peoples doesn’t impress the Food and Drug Administration. One could point out that tobacco was also used for centuries, without apparent health effects, by indigenous peoples. Only rigorous scientific inquiry was able to ferret out the connection to cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. So the FDA’s position on food additive petitions is to reject them unless substantial scientific proof is offered that the proposed additive (whether natural or synthetic) is safe for human consumption.

Three petitions for stevia have been rejected over the last ten years, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer watchdog group. “Although there is no evidence of harm to people, laboratory studies of stevia have found potential cancer and reproductive-health problems. Stevia depressed sperm production in male rats and reduced the number and size of the offspring of female hamsters. Until those concerns are disproven, stevia should not be used by manufacturers in soft drinks, candy, or other foods,” said associate nutritionist for the CSPI, David Schardt. In a CSPI press release dated March 2000, Schardt also notes that in laboratory test tubes at least, a derivative of stevia can be converted into a mutagen, a type of chemical that can also sometimes cause cancer. “Until we know whether this mutagen is formed in people, stevia cannot be considered safe, ” said Schardt. Additionally, some toxicologists are concerned by a few studies that have raised questions about the effect of large amounts of stevia on carbohydrate metabolism. Of particular concern is the possible effect on children. While the FDA’s enforcement position has included search and seizure of stevia imported as a sweetener, it is free to be imported as long as it is destined for scientific research use, or else is clearly labeled as a dietary supplement.

The European Community and the Canadian government have expressed concerns similar to those of the US Food and Drug Administration. Stevia is not approved for use as a sweetener in Canada, and like its equivalent agency in the U.S., the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has seized and detained shipments of stevia apparently being imported for use as a food sweetener. European countries have also banned the import of stevia as food or food ingredient, citing the lack of scientific evidence proving its safety.

I would hesitate to comment on stevia’s bladder friendliness based solely on my own experience, and it hasn’t been used by IC patients enough to get a feel for how well it is tolerated generally. I’m not a doctor or scientific expert either. But I do think the take-home message here, with regard to both stevia’s safety and its IC bladder-friendliness, is that at this point we simply don’t know enough.