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Food safety

Stevia is sweet - but is it safe? Add to ...

Forget sugar. And aspartame. And sucralose. Although it's not yet authorized for use as an additive in food, a low-calorie, all-natural sweetener is making its way into Canadian products, with environmentally-themed marketing strategies that could change the way consumers view alternatives to sugar.

The sweetener is derived from a plant called stevia, which grows in Paraguay and Brazil and has been used for centuries in South America. It's already available in Canadian natural-food stores as a tabletop sweetener. But now companies such as Cargill Ltd. and Merisant Worldwide Inc. are extracting rebaudioside A, one of the components that makes the plant sweet, and turning it into a zero-calorie, natural rival to artificial sweeteners like Splenda.

Cargill's stevia product is known as Truvia, while Merisant - owner of other sweetener brands such as Equal - markets its as PureVia. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last December it would allow stevia and its extracts to be added to food and beverages as a sweetener, which means the products are now being sold south of the border in grocery stores and being added to products.



 

U.S. ads for Truvia feature women tasting the crystals or sprinkling them in coffee in between images of a bright green leaf dripping with water. Truvia is described as "nature's ultimate guilt-free indulgence" that won't end up "on your conscience or your thighs."

Ads created for Merisant's PureVia feature U.S. volleyball player Gabrielle Reece in the nude, strategically covered by leafy green vines.

The marketing push appears to be working: Consumer research firm Mintel estimates the market for products made with stevia could reach $2-billion (U.S.) by the end of 2011.

Health Canada doesn't allow stevia or its extracts to be used as a food additive in this country because of insufficient evidence to support its safety. The department is "currently reviewing its position on stevia extracts as an acceptable food additive," Health Canada spokesman Philippe Laroche wrote in an e-mail this week.

But last month, the department released updated rules that allow stevia and its extracts to be added as a non-medicinal ingredient to natural health products, which has opened the door to allowing food and beverage makers to expand the use of stevia in their products.

For instance, PepsiCo Beverages Canada has just launched a new vitamin-infused Aquafina water beverage sweetened with PureVia. The company has submitted an application to Health Canada's Natural Health Products Directorate to have the water approved as a natural health product. Currently, the government isn't taking action against low-risk natural health products that are sold before receiving approval.

"As consumers become ever more health-conscious, they continue to look for lower-calorie beverages and importantly all-natural beverages," said Stacy Reichert, president of PepsiCo Beverages Canada.

Coca-Cola Canada is planning to introduce beverages made with Truvia in this country, but public-affairs manager Leigha Cotton wouldn't disclose a timeline.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about stevia moving into the mainstream. Although it has a long history of use, there are fears that introducing stevia and its extracts in a wide variety of products could lead to potential health problems.

For instance, some studies have suggested it can lead to male reproductive problems, interfere with metabolism and cause genetic mutations.

"There are a lot of risks and none of the big players seem to care," said Curtis Eckhert, professor in the environmental health sciences and molecular toxicology department at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Dr. Eckhert helped prepare a report last year for the U.S.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest that urged more testing on stevia extracts before it is widely introduced into the population.

He said evidence of possible genetic mutations in animals caused by stevia extracts is alarming and that companies should launch rigorous studies on the effects in humans to determine the potential risk.

"We thought the risk was high enough because of the data that's out there, this study should be done before [stevia]is added in such a wide variety of products," Dr. Eckhert said.

Executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest Michael Jacobson said he believes stevia is probably much safer than artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, but that more rigorous studies should be done.

"It would be reassuring to see more evidence of safety," Mr. Jacobson said.

At PepsiCo, Ms. Reichert said the company believes there is "an extensive database" on the safety of rebaudioside A and that its long history of use provides strong evidence it won't cause harm to consumers.

The sweet lowdown

Even the best artificial sweeteners may come with a health-related caveat. A breakdown of some of the best-known sugar alternatives:

Aspartame

What is it? A low-calorie artificial sweetener that has been approved for use in Canada since 1981. It is added to many products, including diet pop, yogurt, cereal and chewing gum.

Status: Sold under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet and is added to food and beverages by manufacturers.

What's the catch? Numerous studies have suggested aspartame may be linked to the development of a variety of cancers. In 2005, a European study found rats fed aspartame at comparable levels per body weight to humans had a higher risk of developing brain tumours, lymphoma and leukemia.

Sucralose

What is it? An artificial sweetener that's added to packaged foods and sold in packets or granulated form.

Status: Marketed under the name Splenda for use in baking.

What's the catch? Some studies have suggested sucralose may promote weight gain and have a harmful effect on beneficial gut bacteria.

Saccharin

What is it? One of the oldest artificial sweeteners, discovered in the 1870s and used in products such as chewing gum, pop and breath mints.

Status: Banned for use as a food additive in Canada since the 1970s.

What's the catch? Saccharin was banned after studies linked the sweetener to cancer in rats. However, it can be sold to consumers as a sweetener, but only at pharmacies.

Cyclamate

What is it? An artificial sweetener that can often come in forms known as sodium cyclamate and calcium cyclamate.

Status: Banned for use as a food additive in Canada. But can be sold directly to consumers with a warning label (usually placed near the ingredient list) that it should only be used on advice of a physician. Sweet 'N Low is one artificial sweetener in Canada that contains cyclamate.

What's the catch? Cyclamate was banned as a food additive after numerous studies linked it to cancer in animals, as well as possible male reproductive problems.

Carly Weeks

 

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