Stevia Approved, Sort of
Move over aspartame and sucralose. A new, natural sweetener has finally come to market. The Coca-Cola Company and Cargill just announced the introduction of Truvia -- a zero-calorie sweetener derived from natural sources. But wait -- is the product really new? Not exactly. Truvia is a derivative of stevia -- that previously maligned sweetener that the FDA disparaged as a mere dietary supplement (upgraded from its previous status as an unsafe food additive).
On the newly launched Truvia website, the hype reports that "The stevia plant that Truvia™ natural sweetener originates from has been used in South America for sweetening foods and beverages for more than 200 years." The irony of that statement lies in the fact that although stevia has indeed been used safely in South America for at least five centuries (not two), and despite the fact that stevia largely replaced artificial sweeteners in Japan and China decades ago because of its superior safety record, the FDA wouldn't approve it as a food...until Coca Cola and Cargil got involved.
In fact, Martha Peiperl, an FDA spokesperson, said a few years ago, "....No one has ever provided FDA with adequate evidence that stevia is safe." She probably supported her judgment with several studies in which rats were given massive doses of stevia. One of those studies found a slight mutagenic effect in the presence of a specific metabolic activation system. Another found an infertility effect. But both of those studies were contradicted by subsequent research, which, apparently, Ms. Peiperl chose to ignore.
As I explained in my newsletter of October, 2007, despite Ms. Peiperl's claims, numerous studies support the safety of stevia. An overwhelming body of research has indicated, for years, that stevia is not only is safe, but that it actually has beneficial effects, including the ability to control obesity, enhance glucose tolerance, and reduce blood pressure. In 2004, an international symposium on "The Safety of Steviosid." was held at at the KU Leuven (Belgium). Scientists from all over the world concluded that stevia was safe, not absorbed by the gut, not mutagenic, not carcinogenic, and in fact, that it seemed to reduce certain types of cancers.
Contrast these findings with research on the lo-cal sweetener darlings of the FDA -- aspartame and sucralose. Aspartame has been implicated in 92 different health issues. The chemical phenylalanine, found in aspartame, kills brain cells. The FDA's own audit on aspartame admitted that it triggers brain tumors, mammary tumors, pancreatic tumors, ovarian tumors, pituitary adenoma, uterine tumors, and birth defects. And as for sucralose, the current superstar, it's already been implicated in a number of health issues, including shrunken thymuses.
So why has the FDA been so supportive of these other sweeteners? Aspartame has been approved by the FDA 26 times in the past 23 years and currently is found in 6000 products, in spite of the chilling evidence that it's a poison. And as for sucralose, with sales of almost a quarter of a billion dollars last year, it's fast closing in on aspartame as the diet industry's sweetener of choice. Why has the FDA allowed these sweeteners to dominate the market, while barring harmless stevia until now?
I hate to say I told you so (Not really. I love it.), but I called it last year when I wrote about stevia and the FDA. As I said in that newsletter, "We can be fairly sure that we will never see stevia approved for commercial use in Europe, Canada, and the US until one of those large corporate entities finds a way to patent it. But wait! Forgive my cynicism! Cargill and Coca Cola are doing just that even as we speak! I think we can look forward to an approval of stevia -- in a patented form -- in the not too distant future."
And voila! Here we are. As soon as Coke and Cargill were ready to patent stevia, the FDA miraculously produced research it can believe in. Coke and Cargill apparently submitted 12 studies supporting the safety of stevia to the FDA. Those studies appeared right away in Food and Chemical Toxicology, and lo and behold, each study was authored by someone with ties either to Coke or Cargill. As David Mendosa points out in an article on the Health Central website, "...the journal accepted the studies almost immediately upon submission. So, although Food and Chemical Toxicology is a peer-reviewed journal, it doesn't look as if any peers actually reviewed these studies."
Sleazy science notwithstanding, and even ignoring the FDA's proclivity to respond to industry needs over consumer health, it's about time that stevia -- a.k.a. truvia -- has finally been approved. There are enough pre-existing real studies and a 500-year history to prove its safety. But talk about loss of credibility for the FDA (hard to do when you start from such a low point). This represents a 180-degree reversal on a dime (or many millions of dimes, as it turns out) of a years'-old, line-in-the-sand position. Not that they had much credibility to begin with, but after this, who can believe anything the FDA says about alternative health products ever again? Very embarrassing!