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Artificial Sweeteners
The Natural Stuff

Americans are on a sugar binge. In 1966 Americans consumed about 113 pounds of caloric sweeteners a year. That figure grew by about a pound a year until 1999. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated we were consuming an astonishing 151.3 pounds of caloric sweeteners per person per year. Obesity had become an epidemic and something had to change.

The change can be summed up in one word. Atkins.

The Atkins Diet solution was simple. Americans had to kick their addiction to carbohydrates and they would live longer, slimmer, healthier lives. Sugar, a simple carbohydrate, was demonized and America started to cut back. A lot.

From 1999 to 2004, American consumption of caloric sweeteners dropped from 151.3 to 141 pounds per person a year. We still wanted our food to taste sweet; we just didn't want to have the sweeteners show up around our waist. Thanks to the miracles of science, we didn't have to. Artificial sweeteners started being added to everything.

Brands like Equal and Splenda became household names. Restaurants began serving regular sugar along with pink, blue and yellow packets. (Sweet 'N Low, Equal and Splenda.) It seems like we were moving in the right direction. The big question now is, are those artificial sweeteners safe?

That depends.

There are several types of artificial sweeteners and the claims made about their benefits (or dangers) are among the most prolific and outrageous we've ever come across. Hundreds of websites are dedicated to pointing out dangerous side effects, but much of the information they present is just plain wrong. Facts are misquoted, studies are ignored and the lies coming from both sides are too numerous to count.

Artificial sweeteners have some good and some bad properties, but you should have the facts to make an informed decision about which (if any) you might want to use. To help you with your decision, we're going to share the details of nearly every artificial sweetener on the market. It's too large for just one article, so we're going to be spreading it over four weeks. We'll be giving you the proper name, then the brand names and finally, what the medical community knows about them. This week we're going to concentrate on two naturally occurring artificial sweeteners.

SweetLeaf - SteviaSteviol Glycosides | Common & Trade Names (Bertoni, Stevia, Stevioside, Sweet Vibes, SweetLeaf, Honey Leaf) - 0 Calories Per Gram

Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the plant known as Stevia rebaudiana. It's sometimes called Bertonia, in honor of Moises S. Bertoni, the Italian botanist who first studied stevia in 1899. The most common extract of the stevia plant, stevioside is about 250-300 times sweeter than sugar.

There have been few studies carried out on stevia simply because it's a plant extract and can't be patented. No major corporation is willing to spend the money to prove it's safe without protecting their investment. One of the few studies that have been done showed that male rats given high doses of stevioside produced fewer sperm and increased cell proliferation in their testicles. (That could lead to infertility.) Female hamsters had fewer and smaller offspring. Unfortunately, there are no significant human studies to see if what happened to the animals would also occur in humans.

The FDA started to get involved in the stevia market in 1991 at the request of an anonymous complaint. The USDA labeled stevia as an "unsafe food additive" and restricted its import. Here's where it starts to get weird. The FDA labeled it unsafe because "toxicological information on stevia is inadequate to demonstrate its safety." It was being treated like a new drug rather than a natural substance. The distinction is important.

If stevia were a newly developed compound or drug, we would agree that rigorous testing should be carried out to prove stevia is safe. However, the FDA's guidelines state that natural substances used prior to 1958 with no reported adverse effects were GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). Stevia is a natural substance. It was used extensively for decades before 1958 and there were no reported adverse effects on humans. By all rights, stevia should have been declared GRAS. It was not. This is the basis of all the conspiracy theories that the FDA is in collusion with the artificial sweetener companies, trying to suppress a natural, viable alternative. We must admit, it certainly looks suspicious.

Here's a little more background. The FDA requires that a product be proven safe before allowing it to be sold as a food additive. However, the FDA must also prove that a product is unsafe to ban it. In 1995 the FDA had not met that burden of proof and they allowed stevia to be sold as a dietary supplement, not a food additive. (Dietary supplements require much less testing than food additives.)


Everything changed in December 2008. The FDA has now given a "no objection" approval to Truvia and PurVia, sweeteners wholly-derived from the Stevia plant. Did the companies behind these Stevia products finally spend millions conducting safety tests?

Nope. They simply had Stevia reclassified as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). Once it was GRAS, they could sell it as a sweetener and add it to food and drink without any safety testing at all. Notice the box of SweetLeaf now says, "Sweetener."

Who's behind this sudden change? Truvia was developed by Cargill and The Coca-Cola Company. PureVia was developed by PepsiCo and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company, a subsidiary of Merisant.

It seems nobody's objecting now that the soft drink money is behind it.

Stevia can now be marketed as an artificial sweetener.

In Europe, things happened a little differently.

The European Commission banned stevia in 1991 when a study showed that steviol, a breakdown product from stevioside and rebaudioside, may cause mutations in the presence of a liver extract of pre-treated rats. Unfortunately, the researchers in the study appear to have mishandled data so badly that even water might appear mutagenic.

The European Commission, in a 1999 review of stevia said, "No appropriate data were presented to enable the safety of the commercial plant product to be evaluated." Until the European Commission got more data, stevia was banned from use in food in the European Union.

Interestingly, it wasn't rigorous testing that finally got Stevia approved. It was years of lobbying by the International Stevia Council. The European Commission gave formal approval that stevia may be sold and added to foods in the European Union as of December 2, 2011.

As of August 2006, there have been no conclusive studies showing stevia has any harmful effects on humans. It has been used by millions of Japanese people for over 30 years and generations of people in South America with no reported or known harmful effects.

We think the federal government should pick up the tab for Stevia studies since they're the ones who improperly banned it for so many years. It would also be nice to see Stevia undergo the same type of rigorous testing other artificial sweeteners have been subjected to, so we can be sure it's not harmful.

Talin - Thaumatin Thaumatin | Common & Trade Names (Talin) - 0 Calories Per Gram

Thaumatins are natural sweeteners first isolated from the katemfe fruit (Thaumatococcus daniellii Bennett) of West Africa. The Talin Food Company of Merseyside in the United Kingdom began extracting thaumatin from the fruit in the 1970s and selling it under the brand name Talin.

Thaumatin is 2,000 to 3,000 times sweeter than sugar, making it the sweetest naturally occurring substance known to man.

In the studies we were able to find on thaumatin, there were no adverse effects associated with it.

As of August 2006, the European Union, Israel and Japan have all approved thaumatin as a sweetener. The United States FDA considers thaumatin to be GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) and allows it to be marketed as a dietary supplement or flavoring agent. The FDA does not allow thaumatin to be sold as a sweetener or food additive. In other words, YOU can put it in food and it's OK. But if a COMPANY mixes it in food, it's illegal. It looks like they're giving it the stevia treatment.

Because thaumatin is a naturally occurring substance, it's unlikely that any company will step up and carry out the additional testing needed to get it cleared as a food additive.

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Updated 6/17/2010
Updated 12/20/2011
Updated 2/17/2016