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Question:

From Seattle, Washington, USA:

I've been diabetic since age 9, over 20 years, and no doctor or nutritionist ever mentioned the herbal sweetener Stevia used widely in Latin America and Japan--and even prescribed to diabetics and hypoglycemics to control sugars. I used it last week for the first time, and it's a miracle, giving me great sugars. Do you know of any ill effects I should know of? Why doesn't the medical community promote this? Should I be concerned about Nutrasweet? I used to drink a lot of Nutrasweet in diet soft drinks, and I'm concerned because Nutrasweet has been associated with weight gain, brain tumors, blindness, and poor diabetic control among other things--and diabetics are a prime target for worse ailments than diabetes. Japanese soft drinks use Stevia. No calories, hundreds of times more concentrated than sugar, and insignificant carbohydrates, with no proven toxicity as far as I've read.

Answer:

Stevia or stevioside is a glycoside extracted from the plant Stevia ribaudiana. As you point out, it has been used quite a lot in Japan and South America, especially in Brazil as a non caloric sweetener. The Japanese moreover have explored the economics of cultivating the plant and have done a lot of studies on the potential toxicity at least in laboratory animals.

I suspect the reason that it has so far not competed with aspartame (Nutrasweet) is that the cost of cultivating, extracting and marketing the rather complex molecule of Stevia is not competitive with the cost of synthesizing Nutrasweet which is a simple dipeptide of two natural amino acids. When Nutrasweet was first introduced all sorts of symptoms were attributed to it, for which there was subsequently very little substantive evidence of ill effect, and I am sure that potential manufacturers don't want to go through that again for another substance that doesn't seem to have any advantages over other sweeteners and for which there is some very tentative evidence that it can be genotoxic and interfere with long chain fatty acid oxidation.

Despite these reservations I suspect that when venture capital becomes more freely available again in Japan preparations of Stevia will become available for export.

DOB

[Editor's comment: See Stevia and Aspartame (NutraSweet) in the Food and Diet section for more information about these two non-sugar sweeteners. JSH]

Original posting 21 Feb 1998
Posted to Meal Planning, Food and Diet

  
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Last Updated: Tuesday April 06, 2010 15:08:56
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