Stevia Sweeteners: Another Low-Calorie Option

Stevia sweeteners received increased media attention over the last year, from general interest articles featured in the mainstream media, to food and health-oriented blog postings. They have been touted for their ability to provide a natural, no-calorie source of sweetness, allowing consumers to enjoy sweet treats without concerns about added calories contributing to weight gain. Until recently, stevia sweeteners were only available as dietary supplements in the U.S. and were not permitted in foods and beverages. However, in December 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a "letter of no questions" that stated it does not question the conclusion that highly purified stevia sweeteners (also known as steviol glycoside extracts) are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as general purpose sweeteners. As a result, new food and beverage products containing these sweeteners have been introduced into the U.S. marketplace. Given these developments, many consumers may be wondering about the origin of stevia sweeteners, as well as their history of use, current availability, and the role they can play in a healthful diet.

Stevia sweeteners are a natural, zero-calorie source of sweetness. They are composed of highly purified steviol glycosides, which are extracted from the sweetest part of the stevia plant. Like other low-calorie sweeteners, they are "intense" sweeteners, meaning a very small amount is required to achieve the desired sweetness. Stevia sweeteners are 200-300 times sweeter than sugar.

Stevia and stevia sweeteners have a long history of safe use in foods and beverages around the world. Stevia sweeteners represent more than 40 percent of the low-calorie sweetener market in Japan. The stevia plant is native to South America, and today, it can be found growing in many countries including China, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, India and South Korea.  Hundreds of foods and beverages throughout the world are sweetened with stevia sweeteners. In the U.S. stevia sweeteners can be found in many foods and beverages, including some juice and tea beverages, as well as some tabletop sweeteners.

The safety of stevia sweeteners for human consumption has been established through rigorous peer-reviewed research, including metabolic and pharmacokinetic studies, general and multi-generational safety studies, including carcinogenicity studies; intake studies; and human studies. Additionally, in June 2008, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), a global panel of food ingredient safety experts, completed a multi-year review of the available scientific data on high purity steviol glycosides and concluded that they are safe for use as general purpose sweeteners. Stevia sweeteners are approved for use in many countries including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Russia, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Malaysia. And now, manufacturers can offer foods and beverages containing stevia sweeteners in the U.S.

Stevia sweeteners offer a number of potential benefits to consumers. They are a suitable option for people with diabetes, since studies show that consumption does not increase blood glucose levels. In addition, studies indicate that stevia sweeteners may be non-cariogenic (i.e. don’t cause tooth decay and/or cavities). Stevia sweeteners also can be an effective aid in calorie reduction efforts without compromising the sweet taste consumers enjoy. When used in place of calorie-containing sweeteners in the diet, stevia sweeteners, as well as other low- or no-calorie sweeteners, can be a useful tool in weight management and weight loss plans that include a healthful diet and regular exercise program. It is also important to note that foods and beverages containing stevia sweeteners may contain additional calories and/or carbohydrates from other ingredients and/or food components, and consumers should read the product label when adding new foods or beverages to their diet.

The table below provides information about all FDA-approved or GRAS low-calorie sweeteners, including their name, sweetness intensity, and common tabletop brand names. Some tabletop sweeteners may contain a minimal number of calories, which come primarily from ingredients added to the product to impart volume. The sweetener itself, however, contains no calories. Ingredient information can be found in the ingredient list on the product label.

Low-Calorie Sweeteners At-A-Glance   
Sweetener  Date Approved Sweeter Than Sugar Brand Name(s)
Acesulfame-K 1988  200x Sunett, Sweet One
Aspartame 1981 180x  NutraSweet, Equal, others
Neotame 2002   7,000x  n/a
Saccharin Prior to 1958  300x Sweet 'N Low, Sweet Twin,
Sugar Twin, others
Stevia sweeteners 2008 200-300x Truvia, PureVia, Sun Crystals
Sucralose 1998 600x Splenda
Sources: Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, IFT, 2006
Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2008

For additional information on stevia sweeteners and other low-calorie sweeteners, see the IFIC Foundation Fact Sheet: Facts about Low-Calorie Sweeteners.