Truvia and PureVia: The Controversy of Stevia

In our final view of Truvia and PureVia, we take a look at the political history of stevia – the base of rebiana, opinions of some of the major players in this debate and offer our final views on the subject.

NOTE: This article is the 3rd part of a series about Truvia and PureVia. You may want to read the first two parts to better understand this article:

Part 1: Truvia and PureVia – A Window to the Past or the Future?
Part 2: Truvia and PureVia – The Science

A History Spent in the Shadows

Stevia, before processing

Stevia, before processing

The plant stevia provides the rebiana sweetener found in both Truvia and PureVia.  Originally, stevia was used, in its whole leaf form, as a prized sweetener of the indigenous Guarani people throughout Paraguay in South America.  It did not find fame in the modern, western food supply until Japan began cultivating and using it in diet soft drinks (including Diet Coke) during the 1970s, a process that continues today.  Building on that success, stevia began to be sold throughout the world, including the United States, during the 1980s.  Its path from here has since become mired in controversy.

Stevia was officially banned from sale in the US as a sweetener in 1991, driven from the market after an anonymous safety petition led the FDA to conclude that it was an unsafe food additive.  The FDA has declined to release the petitioner’s affiliation, although it is suspected to be someone with links to aspartame – a popular artificial sweetener that had just come to market in the 1990s.

Because of the 1991 decision, an ‘Import Alert‘ was then issued by the FDA maintaining that information regarding stevia leaves – the same source of Truvia and PureVia – was [emphasis mine]:

“…inadequate to demonstrate its safety as a food additive or to affirm its status as GRAS” (GRAS = Generally Recognized as Safe, FDA speak for labeling that recognizes a product’s safety).

This position is at odds with just about every other natural food in existence.  Because the FDA has no mandate to test real foods, it makes little sense why this decision was made.  Any food ‘in common use’ before 1958 was automatically grandfathered into being deemed GRAS, and so – with stevia’s history of being safely used as a sweetener in South America for centuries – it clearly qualified.

We contacted the FDA but they declined to comment on this position.

A Change in Position

Japan's Truvia

Japan's Truvia

Stevia was completely banned from the United States until 1994, when the the Congress passed legislation that allowed stevia to be used solely as, ‘an herbal supplement’.   Interestingly though, the sweetener was still banned from being sold as a sweetener.  This contradictory stance established in 1994 - where stevia remained banned from sale as a sweetener but remained for sale as a supplement – continues clear into today.

The closest we can get to a followup opinion from the FDA on the matter doesn’t come for another 8 years.  From the FDA’s now discontinued magazine named, appropriately enough, “FDA Consumer Magazine“, this was the only other mention of stevia on the FDA’s website for almost 15 years [emphasis mine]:

Another product, stevia, is derived from a South American shrub. Though it can impart a sweet taste to foods, it cannot be sold as a sweetener because FDA considers it an unapproved food additive. “The safety of stevia has been questioned by published studies,” says Martha Peiperl, a consumer safety officer in FDA’s Office of Premarket Approval. “And no one has ever provided FDA with adequate evidence that the substance [stevia] is safe.” Under provisions of 1994 legislation, however, stevia can be sold as a “dietary supplement,” though it cannot be promoted as a sweetener.

Ms. Peiperl of the FDA is referring to the idea that one of the two sweeteners in stevia called steviocide, might cause mutations in the DNA of people who eat it regularly.  As we reported in our scientific review of rebiana, the studies that suggested stevia was mutagenic were widely dismissed because the amount of stevia required to cause the defect was so far in excess of what anyone could ever possibly consume.

They say OK to stevia

They say OK to stevia

Stranger still, after a large review of scientific literature, the World Health Organization declared in 2006 that stevia is completely safe and even potentially beneficial for people with hypertension (WHO).  That opinion was further codified at the 69th annual JEFCA (Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives) conference (.pdf link), where stevia was recognized as being non-mutagenic.

Clearly, quite a few scientists could have “provided FDA with adequate evidence that the substance [stevia] is safe” in Ms. Peiperl’s words.  The only problem was that the FDA never asked to reevaluate stevia, for what are likely political reasons from what we have seen so far.

Another Policy Switch

In December 2008. the FDA opened yet another chapter in this debate and declared that rebaudioside A (rebiana) – the other sweetener found in stevia – was GRAS.  Somehow, ABC News broke this story:

From the official GRAS approval letter:

The subject of the notice is rebaudioside A purified from Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni. The notice informs FDA of the view of Cargill, Incorporated (Cargill) that rebaudioside A is GRAS, through scientific procedures, for use as a general-purpose sweetener in foods, excluding meat and poultry products, provided that food standards of identity do not preclude such use, at levels determined by current good manufacturing practices (cGMP).

Obviously aware of yet another policy contradiction, the FDA puts out a one-line statement in the GRAS notice about stevia, the plant that remains banned as a sweetener [emphasis mine]:

The rebaudioside A that is the subject of GRAS Notice No. GRN 000253 is a highly purified component of the stevia plant. As such, FDA notes that the GRAS notice for the use of a specific purified component of stevia, such as rebaudioside A, and FDA’s response do not necessarily apply to the uses of other stevia products.

The wording of this final statement here is especially interesting because the FDA is leaving the door open for yet further interpretation.  If this decision ‘does not necessarily apply’ to other uses of Stevia, companies that want to use stevia in their products may be able to petition the FDA for yet another policy change. Regardless, despite rebiana being approved as GRAS, stevia can still only be sold as a dietary supplement, not as a sweetener.

From the Peanut Gallery…

Nutrition Wonderland repeatedly tried to get in touch with different offices inside of the FDA to clarify their contradictory positions regarding stevia and rebiana but our calls were never returned.  Without a direct comment from the FDA, we can only speculate as to what was happening with regard to their policy – but that position really isn’t that hard to ascertain from the evidence.

How the mighty have fallen...

How the mighty have fallen...

Based on the financiers of the rebiana studies (Cargill and Coca-Cola), the speed with which this decision was made and the history of stevia, we are left to conclude that rebiana- and consequently Truvia and PureVia – were simply approved because of who petitioned the FDA.

Now, the FDA’s ruling does not mean that rebiana is not safe – but then again we don’t know that it is completely safe.  It’s hard what to know here.  We do know one thing though – with giants like Coca-Cola, Cargill, PepsiCo and Merisant banging at the FDA’s door, it becomes pretty obvious that there was little chance rebiana would be kept out of the market, regardless of what the science said.  The FDA’s position on stevia has never (well, post 1991 at least) sided with science.  This decision brings into question many of the other food additives that the FDA has approved, namely aspartame – whose makers may have been active in getting stevia banned.

Nutrition Wonderland also contacted the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a reputable food watchdog, who was cautiously optimistic about Truvia back in June 2008 in a WebMD article.  They have since dramatically reversed their position based largely upon new information from a report put out by UCLA showing why rebiana and stevia in general is unsafe.  You can view it below:

We read over its arguments as to why rebiana is unsafe in this report but they are not as convincing as CSPI would have you believe.  While rebiana is not fully tested, this report finds fault with nearly every study published to date on the subject of stevia.  Its hard to buy into the idea that this much bad science was performed.  Nutrition Wonderland has extreme doubts about the Truvia-sponsored science we thoroughly discussed in our earlier review but the safety of stevioside seems well proven, based on its use in Japan for over 30 years.  Additionally, this report may have been performed at the behest of CSPI itself, making us leery of its findings as much as we are leery of Cargill’s.

We contacted the CSPI repeatedly to make sense of their changing positions but they have not made a public statement to us regarding this situation.

Final Words about Stevia > Rebiana > Truvia/PureVia

In general with food, we see a destructive pattern with each refined product brought onto the market place.  Whole grains reduce the risk of heart disease while refined grains increase it.  The fructose in honey helps the body, while the fructose in HFCS has been linked to obesity, diabetes and insulin resistance.  Cold pressed natural oils dramatically reduce inflammation, while heavily refined hydrogenated oils promote inflammation – and chronic disease.  Why refined rebiana would be better for us than the whole leaf stevia has not been explained.

Cheers or Jeers?

Cheers or Jeers?

There is some reason to think extracts of stevia, specifically stevioside, could prove extremely beneficial in a refined form but Truvia and PureVia do not contain any of that material.  Both sweeteners are proprietary formulas containing the largely untested rebiana and large amounts of erythritol, another non-caloric sweetening agent.  In fact, by volume, Truvia and PureVia have more erythritol than they do rebiana.  There is still no science testing Truvia and PureVia themselves, which would show how these two sweeteners (rebiana and erythritol) metabolize together.

More than anything, Nutrition Wonderland strongly believes these sweeteners were developed so that the companies involved, especially Cargill and Merisant, could own the intellectual property behind stevia – in effect owning the food.  Cargill released some justification for all this trouble, if you don’t mind very corporate video:

It would have been far easier to just use stevia for commercial food production – but, since you cannot patent a natural food, this opportunity was overlooked in our opinion.  This pattern of using the intellectual property of food for profit is well established across the 21st century agribusiness industry, modeled after highly successful power plays by chemical giants in the sale of GMO seeds.

We have doubts about the sponsored science involved, doubts about the motive of this product in general and deep suspicions as to why stevia remains banned from the marketplace.  Truvia and PureVia may in fact be perfectly safe – and preliminary science shows that to be the case – but far more research on these new sweeteners is required.  Even still, we will probably never know the truth.  It is now the American public’s turn to be the guinea pigs for another agribusiness experiment.  You can easily opt out of this debate – as we are – by enjoying any of these safe sweetening options:

  • regular stevia sweetener ‘supplements’
  • blackstrap molasses (unrefined)
  • organic agave nectar
  • brown “turbinado” cane sugar (avoid brown sugar from sugar beets as they are now GMO)
  • Jennifer

    I am glad to have read the article…our government is SO FAR away from what the forefathers envision, it turns my stomach. About these sweeteners, I believe we will never know the truth, but gives me pause that if people in other countries have used Stevia for years without problems, then maybe we should too. I would like to do more research about the use of Stevia in other countries, as I am addicted to having a sugar taste. I use Konsyl every night and the only way I can drink it is to put real sugar in it, then I focus on the taste and not the gritty stuff. I’ve tried other laxative products and with the # of stomach issues I have, Konsyl is the best, but I also have a ton of cavities. But aspartame etc, make me feel like I have the flu…not sure about how PureVia will do for me. I’ve gone off caffienated/carbonated beverages and am on a search for something else to drink besides water. SoBe Lifewater no calorie vitamin water has PureVia in it, the regular SoBe has just plain sugar (or so the label says), so not sure what to do. It’s just so darn hard to be healthy these days, oh Lord help us because our government wants us sick!

    • jane

      jennifer, i would try eight ounces of water with an ounce of unsweetened cranberry juice with psyllium added, do it first thing in the morning and last thing at night, you will see a great difference in your regularity, these are two totally natural ingredients, i have been doing it since the first of december, and feel great, it is also suppose to detox your liver, the fat burning organ of the body.  after reading all of this stuff, i will stop adding the stevia in the raw as it is really unnecessary and may be harming me/counteracting the good the juice is doing to detox my digestive system.

  • Jennifer

    I am glad to have read the article…our government is SO FAR away from what the forefathers envision, it turns my stomach. About these sweeteners, I believe we will never know the truth, but gives me pause that if people in other countries have used Stevia for years without problems, then maybe we should too. I would like to do more research about the use of Stevia in other countries, as I am addicted to having a sugar taste. I use Konsyl every night and the only way I can drink it is to put real sugar in it, then I focus on the taste and not the gritty stuff. I’ve tried other laxative products and with the # of stomach issues I have, Konsyl is the best, but I also have a ton of cavities. But aspartame etc, make me feel like I have the flu…not sure about how PureVia will do for me. I’ve gone off caffienated/carbonated beverages and am on a search for something else to drink besides water. SoBe Lifewater no calorie vitamin water has PureVia in it, the regular SoBe has just plain sugar (or so the label says), so not sure what to do. It’s just so darn hard to be healthy these days, oh Lord help us because our government wants us sick!

  • Blue Sky

    One thing no one has brought up on this page is that stevia when cooked or heated becomes bitter. I know I tried to use it in my coffee years ago. I had heard it would become bitter but I had to try it for myself. I wonder – and I am not trying to defend anyone here, I’m just posing a question – if a process had to be developed for stevia to preserve it through some type of heat processing that may be required for natural foods when bottling them for mass distribution?

    Stevia in it’s “natural supplement” form is very good in cold teas and other cold foods but cooking with it has always been a “bitter” struggle (pun intended).

    • Mommasaurus

      I have been using Stevia for a year now. First, I started with “Stevia in the Raw” and another brand, both of which tasted fine to me. Then, after some research, I switched to “SweetLeaf,” because of the fact that no chemicals at all are added. My husband thought this had a bitter taste, but he doesn’t usually sweeten his drinks. I use this in iced tea, hot tea, and hot coffee and have never tasted a bit of bitterness! I must admit, though, that I have not yet tried baking with any stevia product.
      Last week, I discovered Sun Crystals, a mix between sugar and stevia, with no additives. I don’t intent to stay with this one, because of the actual sugar; but, it is delicious!

      • Mommasaurus

        I forgot to mention that the Sun Crystals brand is sponsored by the American Diabetes Association. Whether that gives it credence or not, do some research!

  • Blue Sky

    One thing no one has brought up on this page is that stevia when cooked or heated becomes bitter. I know I tried to use it in my coffee years ago. I had heard it would become bitter but I had to try it for myself. I wonder – and I am not trying to defend anyone here, I’m just posing a question – if a process had to be developed for stevia to preserve it through some type of heat processing that may be required for natural foods when bottling them for mass distribution?

    Stevia in it’s “natural supplement” form is very good in cold teas and other cold foods but cooking with it has always been a “bitter” struggle (pun intended).

  • Aaron

    The articles and posts are very interesting however I am noxious after reading all of this. It is clear to me that one of the solutions to at least getting straight answers is putting an end to any contributions from for-profit business to agencies and studies that are designed to protect consumers. Having Cargill for example run tests and studies on its own products is in violation of basic science and testing procedures. The challenge is that these studies cost money and the companies producing the products obviously have incentives for running the studies and influencing the ruling agencies.

    If the companies producing the products do not pay for the studies who will? What is the new administrator’s motive?

    How did we ever get to a point in this country that we allow policy to be made for the better of profit rather than the population of the people served? What a shame.

    I am a successful entrepreneur and capitalist but still believe that we can do the right thing and that capitalism and corruption do not have to go hand in hand.

    Finally and most frustrating I don’t know how we can change this………………..

  • Aaron

    The articles and posts are very interesting however I am noxious after reading all of this. It is clear to me that one of the solutions to at least getting straight answers is putting an end to any contributions from for-profit business to agencies and studies that are designed to protect consumers. Having Cargill for example run tests and studies on its own products is in violation of basic science and testing procedures. The challenge is that these studies cost money and the companies producing the products obviously have incentives for running the studies and influencing the ruling agencies.

    If the companies producing the products do not pay for the studies who will? What is the new administrator’s motive?

    How did we ever get to a point in this country that we allow policy to be made for the better of profit rather than the population of the people served? What a shame.

    I am a successful entrepreneur and capitalist but still believe that we can do the right thing and that capitalism and corruption do not have to go hand in hand.

    Finally and most frustrating I don’t know how we can change this………………..

  • http://www.barbarajo.com barbara jo

    So if I only use pure Stevia I am alright?

    It is amazing that the major soda companies can get away with using the American public to test their products! No major studies on Truvia and Purevia are enough for me NOT to purchase either!

    So if I have to choose betweek Splenda and Stevia, which is the better choice? I am going to go with Stevia unless I hear otherwise.

    • LA

      Splenda is not safe, sweet leaf and less processed brands of stevia are muuuch safer than splenda, aspartame, truvia, and purevia, it’s been used for years in other countries

    • stevelf

      Definitely just buy pure-whole-leaf Stevia from a reputed, dedicated company like “Sweet Leaf”…..piss off to pureVia and TruVia, etc…
      Demonstrate that we are not so DECEIVABLE !!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.barbarajo.com barbara jo

    So if I only use pure Stevia I am alright?

    It is amazing that the major soda companies can get away with using the American public to test their products! No major studies on Truvia and Purevia are enough for me NOT to purchase either!

    So if I have to choose betweek Splenda and Stevia, which is the better choice? I am going to go with Stevia unless I hear otherwise.

  • DPA

    Well, we KNOW that processed sugars are addictive. We eat, we get a rush and shortly thereafter we crash… Lousy way to live if you ask me. And the “soda-pop” companies are at the head of the list of “pushers.” (Interesting historical note: CocaCola got it’s start by incorporating “cocaine” in it’s beverage!)

    What’s interesting is the historicity of sugar of any kind. If we step back to pre-20th century, no one worried about having “sweets” to eat. That was a delicacy far out of the reach of the majority of the population. A sweet-tooth was assuaged by fruit (ie apples and sometimes oranges which could also be hard to come by). We are blessed to be able to get many kinds of fruits these days. We should take advantage of that.

    Summary: When it comes to food, the U.S. Population needs to step BACK to the previous centuries!

  • DPA

    Well, we KNOW that processed sugars are addictive. We eat, we get a rush and shortly thereafter we crash… Lousy way to live if you ask me. And the “soda-pop” companies are at the head of the list of “pushers.” (Interesting historical note: CocaCola got it’s start by incorporating “cocaine” in it’s beverage!)

    What’s interesting is the historicity of sugar of any kind. If we step back to pre-20th century, no one worried about having “sweets” to eat. That was a delicacy far out of the reach of the majority of the population. A sweet-tooth was assuaged by fruit (ie apples and sometimes oranges which could also be hard to come by). We are blessed to be able to get many kinds of fruits these days. We should take advantage of that.

    Summary: When it comes to food, the U.S. Population needs to step BACK to the previous centuries!

  • Sharonwags

    Very informative article.
    I am allergic to Aspertame. I get almost an instant headache from consuming it. It is hard to find on some labels these days, so I really have to read the fine print carefully. Recenty I noticed that Sobe has Reb A as its sweetner, (Purevia Brand). I have had Stevia in my cupboards for years and use it occassionally and have never had a problem. Unfortunately my headaches returned the past couple of days. Because the headaches this prompted me to do a little digging. After reading your article I’m convinced I’m also allergic to Purvia. I’m going to stick to the more natural alternatives!
    Thanks for the informative article.

  • Wayne

    Thanks for your efforts for us all in putting together the best comprehensive discussion regarding rebiana and stevioside.

    I would just make one comment: Chemicals are chemicals. It doesn’t matter where they come from. A chemical that is refined is no different that a chemical that is from nature and thus assumed to be “natural” and therefore alright. In fact, all of the chemicals that nature makes are toxins if taken in high enough concentrations. For example, any number of animals and plants make potent toxins. And to say that refined chemicals are necessarily bad implies we should stop drinking tap water and return as a society to drinking ground water instead. Otherwise, though, I would say you did a very admirable job covering all of this.

    • http://twitter.com/dontfollowmeplz Christa Snow

      no genius, drink filtered water because of the HIGH CONCENTRATIONS of harsh chemicals in unfiltered tap water.

      • Anonymous

        Why such a nasty reply? I’m a chemist, and find his analysis reasonable. For instance, is there a difference between pure ethanol produced by fermentation & distillation vs. pure ethanol made in a lab? No there is not.

        His response was not a condemnation of filtration (which is “refining” by the way), it was a criticism of the language used, which was somewhat misleading about various terms.

  • bb

    Hoping that Stevia was finally available on the market, I bought PureVia a year ago but could not make myself to use it. I tried it today, and after detecting a refined food taste, I was looking for some insight. I read your report with fascination finding validation to my suspicion that PureVia is not Stevia per se.
    If a product is not called the name of a plant from which it is extracted, if a Trade Mark sign stands by the name, we know processing, politics and manipulations of interest groups are involved. And as you posted, while non pasteurized honey is beneficial not only sweet, the refined sugar is toxic.
    As Michael Pollan said, “vote with your fork”, I am disposing PureVia right away.
    Thank you for the eloquent article.

  • stevelf

    typical smoke and mirrors—– Stevia is NOT new on the marketplace— been there for MANY years– now Carghill and Merisant are going to try to fraudulently ride the Stevia -health-food-anti-Aspartame-wave with a tweaked-Stevia-product that actually only contains 12% pure-leaf-Stevia, AS OPPOSED TO A PURE-LEAF STEVIA PRODUCT LIKE SWEET LEAF !!!!!!!!!!!! As usual, BUYER BEWARE OF THIS DIS-INGENUIS BULLSHIT, ATROCITY, OUTRAGE !!!!!!!! GET EDUCATED !!!!!!!!

  • Melorello

    Stevia plants are simple to take care of. Pull a few leaves off & there’s your sweetener, unrefined and totally natural.

    • Igbo

      Where can I buy the plant? I do not see it in the market? Please advice

  • Still_h2o

    I recently bought a box of Truevia packets – the ingredients listed there are not the same as the ones in this article – first is dextrose, then reb a, cellulose powders and natural flavors.  Does the dextrose listing mean that the formula has changed since this article was written?  I noticed that I have more heart burn since I’ve been using this which was a problem with splenda as well. 

  • PS

    I am just going to use regular, old sugar.  This is all too confusing to know who is right!

  • Mel

    The article illustrates the politics of food in this country.  If a company has enough money , power, and political influence, it can get FDA approval for a new product, irregardless of whether it is safe or not.  Look closely and you will see that many of the people who serve on the government boards making these decisions are former executives of major food companies … bias with a capital B.  The article failed to mention why Cargill and Coca-Cola are so keen on Reb A (rebiana).  It’s 300 times more sweet than sugar and it is non-caloric.  If they can corner the market on the stuff, they will control the sugar-free beverage industry.  They can claim Reb A is natural (stevia, right?) and entice people away from the artificial sweeteners, like Nutrasweet.   But everyone should keep in mind that Truvia is a manufactured product, not a natural product.  As a manufactured product, it has undergone chemical extraction from stevia accompanied by chemical purification, i.e. it’s a factory processed food ingredient.  If you want to be healthy, it’s best to stay away from or at least minimize any foods that you eat that were born in factories.  This summer in Central Illinois as a lark, I grew a stevia plant.  It did quite well.  The leaves have a sweet taste.  However, I’ve never been real crazy about stevia due to its aftertaste and the unpredictability of the purity from suppliers.  I started using it in the 1990′s as a sugar replacement, but I never got hooked to it.  But, if you like it, I agree with other comments about buying stevia as a natural product and avoid the over-refined products produced by food conglomerates.

  • mamucas

    It’s funny how people look for a safe sweetener when humanity has always had one, safe, natural and delicious, it’s called sugar, comes from sugar canes and if you consume it moderately it won’t have any side effects, give the finger to all these corporations and our corrupted government by simply hitting them where it hurts them the most, their greedy pockets by not buying thier B.S. miracle product. Just my two cents. =)

  • Segrick

    Being that this article is over two years old, I wonder about it’s current validity, in that more information should be available by now.  I got off Truvia and switched over to Stevia in the Raw because it tastes better than either Truvia, Pure Via or Sun Crystals…..at least to me.

  • Mluebke

    Is it true that the FDA has now approved stevia as a sweetener?

  • ME yeA ME

    Plz, if anybody knows, just answer me on my e-mail: elio_s99@hotmail:disqus.com 
    i want to know, in the purvia advertisement or spot 2012, that you ca watch on youtube by typing : Purvia spot 2012 – : i just want to know the NAME OF THE BOY. He’s SOOOOOOOOO CUTE. thank you, and i need the answer fast!

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