You may have not even noticed it, but there are more and more products on the market lately that get their sugar kick from something other than sugar—nor is it coming from any of the other "usual suspects" in the artificial sweetening arsenal. (Aspartame, Splenda, Nutrasweet, etc.)
Nope, this one is called stevia , and it's made from a plant of the same name; the sweetener sometimes goes under the brand name Truvia or in SweetLeaf sweetener packets. The ads brag that it's all-natural, born of a healthy-looking plant (from the chrysanthemum family native to Paraguay) and that the FDA cleared it for use in food and beverages in Dec of last year. You can now find stevia-sweetened versions of Tropicana OJ (called Trop50 because it has 50% less sugar and just 50 calories per serving), Odwalla, and some SoBe drinks.
But the thing is, not everyone is so sure about this newest sweet thing. Concerns about cancer and infertility were an issue when the first study reports were coming out on it in the 90s. According to this MSNBC article, at least one chemistry researcher is concerned about another study in stevia's past. John Pezzuto cites a study he conducted that suggests a certain strain
of stevia can mutate DNA, a possible cancer risk. "Given
that there’s the potential for a mutagenic response, why take the risk
with stevia?" asks Pezzuto, dean of the University of Hawaii at Hilo
College of Pharmacy. "I will not be consuming any myself." On other other end of the spectrum, however, are researchers who cite mainstream, large-scale studies that have shown no such effects and note that the FDA has approved a formulation of the plant called Reb A, which has been found to be safe.
But still other critics question the very issue of relying on extra-sweet products, since when it comes to gaining weight, calories from beverages can be as much, or more of a problem than those from food. Other reports have linked diet soda (on which many dieters rely heavily!) to weight gain.
Full disclosure: I recently picked up a carton of the Trop50 orange juice, wanting to see what it tasted like—hoping it would be better than some of the reduce-calorie juices alternatives I've already tried. With plenty of the pulpy, tangy mouth-feel of "real" OJ and no aftertaste of other beverages, I really liked it…but given this so-so evidence on the health aspects stevia, I think I will consume it in small doses. (For the record, my husband thought it tasted like Tang, but I didn't get to "blind taste test" him on this; he read the carton and I think he might have had a preconceived notion.)
Photo from Flickr