Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), a perennial shrub native to South America, has a long history of use as a natural sweetener for food, medicines and beverages.1 Whole stevia contains a number of substances, including various stevioside compounds, rebaudiosides and glycoside.
Steviol glycosides, including rebaudioside A, rebaudioside D and rebaudioside M (Reb A, Reb D, Reb M respectively), are what provide the sweet taste, with Reb A being the sweetest.2 In its isolated, purified form, Reb A is 250 to 400 times sweeter than sugar.
Despite hundreds of years of safe use of stevia, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has labeled stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts “unsafe food additives,”3 granting GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status to certain high-purity steviol glycosides only.4
In 2007, Hain Celestial Group Inc., maker of Celestial Seasonings herbal teas, received a warning letter from the FDA saying the stevia used in some of their teas may be dangerous to blood sugar and reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems.5
If this FDA action strikes you as backward, you’re not alone. More often than not, consuming whole plant products will be safer due to synergistic effects than using a single active ingredient by itself. Many suspect the FDA is protecting the sugar and artificial sweetener industries.
As noted by Rob McCaleb, president and founder of the Herb Research Foundation, “Sweetness is big money. Nobody wants to see something cheap and easy to grow on the market competing with the things they worked so hard to get approved.”6
Beware of Cargill’s Genetically Engineered ‘Stevia’
To this day, FDA considers whole stevia unsafe, while genetically engineered (GE) versions of stevia have received the green light for widespread and unregulated use in food. The FDA issued a GRAS No Objection letter for Cargill’s GE stevia product EverSweet in 2016.7
Even more ridiculous, Cargill’s GE stevia is being marketed as “nonartificial.” As reported by the nonprofit watchdog group U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) November 20, 2019:8
“The international food conglomerate Cargill is ramping up commercial-scale production of its genetically engineered sweetener, EverSweet, in a new $50 million production facility that began operating this week in Blair, Nebraska …
Cargill is marketing its new stevia substitute as ‘non-artificial.’ What does that mean? Consumers who click on the link provided in the press release will not get a straight answer.
The web page twists itself into knots trying to describe the new process, which involves genetically engineering yeast to convert sugar molecules into a substance that mimics the taste of stevia, as a ‘centuries old technique’ — without once mentioning genetic engineering or the genetic modified organisms (GMOS) used to make the product.”
In short, Cargill’s “nonartificial stevia” isn’t even derived from actual stevia. It’s a GE-derived synthetic biology product designed to mimic components of the real thing.9 While “inspired” by real stevia, EverSweet’s Reb M and Reb D components are made through GE yeast fermentation. Can it get any more artificial than that? As reported by Star Tribune:10
“A decade ago, Cargill partnered with the University of Munich and Swiss biotech company Evolva to map the stevia leaf’s molecular biology. The team found that when Reb M and Reb D were combined, it produced the same sweetness but without the Reb A molecule that can give pure stevia products a bitter aftertaste.
But Reb M and Reb D are found in less than 1% of each stevia leaf and Cargill said it could never grow enough to make leaf extraction feasible without degrading the land … The process adds a GMO yeast to a fermentation tank where it helps convert simple sugars into Reb M and Reb D.”
Subterfuge and Misleading Marketing
In recent years, awareness of the potential hazards of GMOs have skyrocketed, and Americans have fought hard for transparency in labeling. More and more people are also demanding fresh, natural, unadulterated or minimally processed foods.
Not only did Americans not get clear and proper GMO labeling, companies like Cargill are taking the subterfuge even further by using vague descriptors such as “fermentation derived” and “nature identical” to describe what’s in reality an artificially lab-created substance.
A key take-home message from all of this is that if you want a stevia-based sweetener that is actually made from the plant, opposed to GE yeast, you have to make sure it’s certified organic or has been non-GMO verified.
Cargill also promotes its synthetic, GE-derived stevia as “sustainable,” which is yet another grossly misleading PR ploy. As noted by USRTK, Cargill provides no data to support its sustainability claims.
What’s already apparent is that lab-grown synthetic biology compounds are causing severe economic damage to indigenous farmers. As reported by Huffpost in 2017, “Farmers in Paraguay and Kenya, for example, depend on stevia crops.”11
Cargill Named Worst Company in the World
In a recent 2019 report12 by Mighty Earth, an environmental protection organization13 chaired by former congressman Henry Waxman, Cargill was named “worst company in the world” for its destructive impact on the environment and its human rights abuses. In the foreword, Waxman states:14
“We recognize this is an audacious claim. There are, alas, many companies that could vie for this dubious honor. But this report provides extensive and compelling evidence to back it up …
In my 40-year long career in Congress, I took on a range of companies that engaged in abusive practices. I have seen firsthand the harmful impact of businesses that do not bring their ethics with them to work. But Cargill stands out.
In contrast to the oil and tobacco industries, for instance, the bad practices documented here are not inherent to the products Cargill sells, and are, in fact, entirely avoidable. For example, perhaps Cargill’s largest negative impact on the natural world is its role in driving the destruction of the world’s last remaining intact forests and prairies …
Unfortunately, because the status quo is deforestation, child labor, and pollution, Cargill’s dithering results in a continuing environmental and human rights disaster. And because Cargill’s reach is so broad, they drag other companies into aiding and abetting their environmental destruction and human rights abuses too.”
Stevia Benefits Beyond Sweet Taste
While stevia has obvious benefits as a natural noncaloric sweetener, studies have shown it may have other health benefits as well. For example, research15 published in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Animal Psychology and Animal Nutrition noted the stevioside in stevia has antimicrobial and antifungal properties, which could render it useful in animal feed in lieu of antibiotics.
According to this study, dietary stevia leaf reduced blood levels of glucose, triglycerides and triiodothyronine (T3) in broiler chickens. In contrast, chickens that received only the active agent, stevioside, only saw a decrease in T3. What this suggests is that consuming whole stevia may be preferable to only one of its components, even if that one agent does not cause undue harm.
Interestingly, though, both stevia leaves and stevioside were found to significantly increase abdominal fat content in the animals. This is reminiscent of other artificial no- and low-calorie sweeteners, which have all been found to increase weight gain, and often to a greater degree than regular sugar.
In studies looking at artificial sweeteners, the lack of calories has been shown to be largely irrelevant, as your metabolism is still affected. Even your risk for Type 2 diabetes has been shown to rise when using artificial sweeteners.
Another study16 published in 2007 reported that the stevia plant may be useful as a source of natural antioxidants. In this study, stevia leaves were found to prevent oxidative DNA damage better than quercetin, which is quite remarkable.
As reported in “Quercetin Lowers Your Risk for Viral Illnesses,” quercetin packs a powerful punch, inhibiting several strains of influenza, hepatitis B and C and a number of other viruses.
Other Stevia Products
Cargill’s EverSweet is certainly not the only stevia product on the market that leaves health conscious consumers wanting. Coca-Cola Co. has Truvia and PepsiCo has PureVia, for example. Both use rebiana, an extract from the stevia plant, and have received the FDA’s blessing.
The fact that stevia has such a long history as a natural sweetener is a major testament to its safety. As mentioned, it’s usually the synergistic effect of all the compounds in the plant that provide the overall health effect, which oftentimes includes “built-in protection” against potentially damaging effects.
But what happens if you take only one or two of these agents and discard the rest? Will it affect your body the same way? The answer is likely no. In its 2008 report, “Toxicology of Rebaudioside A: A Review,”17 the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) points out that stevioside compounds and Reb A are metabolized at different rates.
This makes it virtually impossible to assess the risk of Reb A from toxicity assessments of stevioside, which has been used as food and medicine in Japan and South America for decades or longer. Additionally, in a human metabolism study, stevioside and Reb A had different pharmacokinetic results.
In layman’s terms, that means your body reacts differently to the two compounds; each compound is metabolized differently and remains in your body for different lengths of time. While neither of these compounds appear to have carcinogenic potential,18 the exact ramifications of these differences are still uncertain.
Is Natural Stevia Safe for Everyone?
Although I believe natural, organic stevia is one of the safest natural sweeteners available, I want to emphasize that if you have insulin issues, you should avoid sweeteners altogether, including stevia, as they all have the ability to lower your sensitivity to insulin.