Supermarket stevia: a natural sweetener or just another industry imitation?

Posted by
February 14, 2012

Is this really stevia? "No," says the FDA.

The story of stevia – an unassuming herb native to Paraguay with an incredibly sweet, no-calorie green leaf – is an interesting one.

It’s part of that leaf, or what’s extracted from it, that has in the past few years become hot food news, or should I say ‘sweet’ news to some really big companies making some really big bucks out of the “stevia” name.

If you had never heard of stevia before you noticed  it in the supermarket alongside the other sweeteners, or saw an ad for Truvia, a stevia-based product, you wouldn’t know what a humongous deal it is to see it labeled as a “sweetener.” But is this supermarket stevia really a “natural” extract of a naturally sweet leaf, or does it simply represent another commercial food-science experiment with what once-upon-a-time was a real food?

Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni was “discovered” in Paraguay in the early 1900s, and many decades later  became a hit in Japan, where it was used widely as a sweetener. But not in the United States.

In fact, no sooner had stevia been introduced on the U.S. herbal scene in the 1980’s than the Food and Drug Administration just as quickly, launched an aggressive campaign to nip its emergence in the bud. A series of FDA-initiated actions against firms using stevia in their products (or buying it for that purpose) included embargoes, searches and seizures of warehouse and manufacturing facilities complete with bevies of armed federal marshals, and, to cap off the effort, a full-fledged “import alert” barring stevia shipments into the country.

A stevia plant

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), passed in 1994, finally allowed the herb to be imported into the U.S., but only if labeled as a “dietary supplement.” People used it as a no-cal sweetener, of course, but any hint by a manufacturer, seller or distributor that it could be used for that purpose could land them in a whole mess of trouble with the FDA. The agency went so far as to seize stevia supplements that were displayed adjacent to books containing recipes or graphics indicating it could be used in beverages (including one I co-authored), along with the offending books.

So imagine how surprising it was to those of us who knew the whole story to suddenly see stevia appear in the supermarket alongside sugar and artificial sweeteners. What happened? How could this herb with the secret sweetness the FDA had spent so long trying to suppress suddenly emerge as the newest, no-cal sweetener on the market?

Stevia, in fact, has always been a perfectly safe natural sweetener. You can even grow it in your garden. But are supermarket stevia products actually stevia? Not according to the FDA.

Truvia, for example, “comes from nature,” according to a claim on its package, which also describes how “dried stevia leaves are steeped in water, similar to making tea.” Various other brands make similar claims, some even incorporating “stevia” into the brand name.

But a page at the FDA website maintains that “these products are not stevia.” So what are they then?

Author and “food industry insider” Bruce Bradley says in his blog that Truvia, made by Cargill (also known as a manufacturer of high fructose corn syrup) has a patented a “40 + step process that includes the use of acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol,” to extract the sweetness from the stevia leaf.

“I don’t know about you,” says Bradley, “but when I make a cup of tea, I’ve never used any of those ingredients.”

Cargil’s Truvia also contains the ever-popular “natural flavors” to, “…bring out the best of our natural sweetness…” something Bradley refers to as “the processed food industry’s dirty little secret.”

And just how did these supermarket stevia sweeteners make it into the marketplace in the first place?

One of the first national stevia products to hit the shelf was PureVia, which submitted a notification to the FDA in May of 2008 saying it had “self” determined  its stevia product to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS (something other companies had tried numerous times to do in the past with no luck). The FDA issued a “no objection” letter later that year.

So how could it be that PureVia succeeded in a mission that even a very well-respected herbal association couldn’t accomplish in the past? Maybe it’s the muscle behind the PureVia brand, which, as it turns out, was a joint effort launched by PepsiCo and another company owned by a spinoff of Monsanto, the makers of NutraSweet (the original brand name for aspartame).

That’s right. The aspartame people are now in the stevia business. Of course, its stevia operation has a really nice, “natural” name, The Whole Earth Sweetener Company. It is also owned by Merisant, a private company formed in 2000 out of the Monsanto tabletop sweetener lineup, which includes, of course, the Equal aspartame brand.

With Monsanto-affiliated Merisant making a stevia product, the story of the sweet herb has almost come full circle. Just what prompted the FDA to intervene in the early marketing of stevia in the 1980s, officials of the agency either cannot or will not say, but industry insiders had reason to believe the FDA’s actions were triggered by a “trade complaint” filed by the makers of NutraSweet.

Stevia is a really amazing plant — even in its most basic “raw” state, it is incredibly sweet. It has also has been used for centuries, with scores of studies having indicated it’s completely safe when consumed as a sweetener.  And yes, there are “real” stevia products out there– natural extracts of the sweet stevia leaf. But I’m guessing you won’t find them in the supermarket.


Linda Bonvie,