Dieters in the US were introduced to stevia sweeteners just a few years ago, after they received the coveted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from the FDA. Finally, a zero calorie sweetener that comes from the leaves of a plant, not some chemical formula made in a lab.
The stevia plant is something you can grow in your backyard or windowsill. The leaves, when chewed, are sweet. Processing the leaves into a powder sweetener results in a non-caloric extract that is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. The extract is added to a bulking powder to bring it to the same sweetness level as sugar, and sold under various trade names.
One example, is the product Truvia, manufactured by Cargill, a global agricultural commodity business with $100 billion in annual sales. The extracting process has been patented by Cargill, and their stevia extract is called Rebaudioside A (Reb A).
A Hawaii woman is now suing Cargill in a class action suit for misleading consumers about Truvia. Denise Howerton bought Truvia based on Cargill’s claims that it was more natural than other zero calorie sweeteners Nutrasweet (aspartame). However, she soon discovered that “Natural” is a flexible term:
To get from a stevia leaf to Reb A, a long chemical process is employed. But Cargill describes the process as similar to extracting flavor from tea leaves. Perhaps the first step is similar, but the following ones are not: ethanol, methanol and/or rubbing alcohol are then employed to extract the sweetener.
The bulking agent added to Reb A is erythritol, a sugar alcohol that is synthetically manufactured in a lab. It starts as GMO corn, which goes through hydrolysis to turn it into starch. It is then treated with yeast to ferment it into the end result.
Truvia’s packaging and marketing materials promise “Nature’s Calorie Free Sweetener” and “Truvia sweetener comes from nature”, but 99% of the sweetener is actually the GMO bulking agent.
What to do at the supermarket:
If you do choose to sweeten your food and beverages with stevia, please follow our five tips for choosing the least processed stevia.
What do you think? Is Truvia a natural sweetener? Do you use it?