Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) is a South American plant native to Paraguay that traditionally has been used to sweeten beverages and make tea. The word “stevia” refers to the entire plant and its components, only some of which are sweet. The sweet tasting components of the stevia plant are called steviol glycosides. Steviol glycosides can be isolated and purified from the leaves of the stevia plant and are now added to some foods, beverages and tabletop sweeteners in the U.S. and elsewhere.
While the word “stevia” actually refers to the entire plant, for the purposes of this web site, the term “stevia sweeteners” will be used to refer to steviol glycosides which are the sweet components isolated and purified from stevia leaves.
Studies clearly support the safety of stevia sweeteners. Further, clinical studies show that steviol glycosides, meeting purity criteria established by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), have no effect on either blood pressure or blood glucose response, indicating stevia sweeteners are safe for use by individuals with diabetes.
Recent studies, including human studies on safety, metabolism and intake, support the safety of stevia sweeteners. JECFA has conducted a thorough scientific review of the existing scientific data on steviol glycosides and concluded that they are safe for use in food and beverages. Based on the wealth of published research, independent scientific experts in both the U.S. and globally have concluded that stevia sweeteners are safe for people of all ages and populations and an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of four mg/kg body weight (expressed as steviol) has been established. The estimated intake of steviol glycosides even among the highest consumers does not exceed the ADI. Food and Chemical Toxicology published a special supplement on the topic of stevia sweetener safety in May 2008.
Based on studies conducted in the past several years, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has concluded that stevia sweeteners are metabolized by a common pathway. This begins in the gut where the steviol glycosides are broken down to steviol. Steviol is excreted in the urine as steviol glucuronide. The metabolized components of steviol glycosides essentially leave the body and there is no accumulation.
In December 2008, in response to Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) notifications submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FDA stated it has no questions regarding the conclusion of expert panels that rebaudioside A is GRAS for use as a general purpose sweetener in foods and beverages, excluding meat and poultry. Rebaudioside A is a stevia sweetener isolated and purified from the leaves of the stevia plant. In June 2009, FDA stated it has no questions regarding the conclusion of an expert panel on the GRAS status of another steviol glycoside extract with high rebaudioside A content for use as a tabletop sweetener. Similar GRAS notifications are before FDA for other steviol glycoside extracts isolated and purified from Stevia rebaudiana.
In 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessed the safety of steviol glycosides from stevia and established an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for their safe use. In November, 2011, the European Commission authorized the use of steviol glycosides as a sweetener in foods and beverages. It is also approved as a dietary supplement in the EU. In Canada, stevia is sold as a natural health product. Stevia and steviol glycosides have a long history of use in several countries, including Japan and Paraguay. Stevia sweeteners are approved for use in many other countries, including Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, China, Russia, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil and Malaysia.
Carakostas M, et al. Overview: the history, technical function and safety of rebaudioside A, a naturally occurring steviol glycoside, for use in food and beverages, Food and Chemical Toxicology (2008) vol 46:S1-S10., doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2008.05.003
Stevia sweeteners are also ingredients in many products, such as ice cream, bread and soft drinks, throughout Asia and South America. In the US, stevia sweeteners are primarily found in tabletop products and reduced calorie beverages. Heightened regard for caloric consumption and increased demand from consumers for a greater variety of low calorie products has provided an impetus to incorporate stevia sweeteners into foods and beverages.
Steviol glycosides are found in the leaves of the stevia plant and each has a particular taste profile and sweetness intensity. Steviol glycosides can be isolated from the leaves of the stevia plant. The process of isolating the sweet tasting steviol glycosides from the leaves of the stevia plant is similar to “steeping” tea leaves. Steviol glycosides are approved for use in countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Paraguay. In the U.S., steviol glycosides with high rebaudioside content are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for use as a tabletop sweetener.
Rebaudioside A is one of the many steviol glycosides in stevia leaves that provide sweetness. In the US, rebaudioside A is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for use as a general purpose sweetener and may be used in foods and beverages, excluding meat and poultry products. Rebaudioside A is approximately 250 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose.
Components of stevia sweeteners contain zero calories, which mean these sweeteners may sweeten food and beverages resulting in fewer calories. Further, research has shown that stevia sweeteners do not contribute calories or carbohydrates to the diet and do not affect blood glucose or insulin response, which allows people with diabetes to consume a greater variety of foods and comply with a healthful meal plan. Stevia sweeteners are an excellent alternative for use in foods and beverages such as diet beverages. The sweet components in stevia sweeteners are naturally occurring which may further benefit consumers who prefer foods and beverages they perceive as natural.
For more information about stevia, visit www.steviabenefits.org.