The Zevia and Stevia Controversy: Is the All-natural Diet Sweetener Safe?

Trendy All-natural Sweetener Surrounded by Controversy
What should we do with a tip about an all-natural alternative to diet soda, Zevia, which is being sold as a dietary supplement due to its use of a natural sweetener called stevia? Although we generally give thumbs-down to containerized drinks making green claims, even the most committed TreeHugger has occasions to need a portable refreshment. So we wonder: is an all-natural option a better choice when your handy reusable beverage container is out of reach?

To be perfectly honest, this tip marks the third time word of a new all-natural sweetener has piqued our curiosity. What we learned about the controversies surrounding the trendy low-calorie sweetener stevia may interest you too.

All-natural Sweetener Stevia
ZEVIA is sweetened by an extract of Stevia, the sweetleaf herb, a relative of the sunflower. Although it appears to be a new trend, use of stevia is not new. Tribes in Brazil and Paraguay sweeten yerba mate with sweetleaf and attribute medicinal properties to the herb. Japan has cultivated sweetleaf since the 1970's when the advent of artificial sweeteners created demand for low-calorie sugar substitutes.

Stevia Controversy
But Stevia is banned in Europe. The USA has not approved stevia as a food additive. Is it a conspiracy of the artificial sweetener industry to suppress an all-natural competitor? Or is there insufficient evidence of the safety of Stevia for human consumption in the face of findings of carcinogenic effects, reduction of fertility and mutagenic effects of the chemicals created when Stevia is digested?

Rumors of conspiracy were prompted by an anonymous challenge to opening the US market to stevia, which under the rules of the FDA could have been been given Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status as an existing product with a history of human consumption. Without FDA approval or GRAS status, Zevia and stevia must be marketed under the less-regulated category of "dietary supplement".

While the food agencies tend to focus on risks, there may be benefits too. Preliminary study results suggest that stevia may have positive effects beyond weight control, including vasodilation (an effect that can be therapeutic for high blood pressure) and improved regulation of blood glucose levels (possibly beneficial in relation to diabetes).

Is the All-natural Alternative Zevia a Greener Choice?
Zevia's family-run, pacific northwest reputation and commitment to principles like using all-recycled aluminum cans may appeal to TreeHuggers. And the campaign of husband and wife lawyer team Jessica and Derek Newman to introduce a sweetener they obviously passionately support may inspire you. But the bottom line is: Zevia is primarily a health choice, not an environmental choice.

Stevia continues to be studied, and more data will certainly help consumers make the best choices for their health. To be fair, let us not forget that controversy surrounds other artificial sweeteners as well. And with Coke introducing Stevia-based sweeteners in countries where it is a legal food additive, deep corporate pockets will accelerate the science to support approval in the USA and Europe -- although Coke and Cargill will probably try to restrict approvals to their specific brand-name extract to keep competition out of the picture.

If you want to stay on the safest and most environmentally friendly side, drink filtered tapwater or a nice tea out of your reusable non-polycarbonate bottle. But if you can't resist the urge for a cola pick-me-up or a citrus soda zing, all-natural Zevia consumed in moderation* seems like a worthy option. (Recycle the can!)

* One can of Zevia has 158 mg of stevia extract. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand has published an acceptable daily intake (ADI or safe dose) of 4 mg/kg of bodyweight, so an 80 kg (176 pound) adult could safely drink two cans of Zevia per day. A 100-fold safety factor is already calculated into this safe dose limit.

However, if you are pregnant, nursing or taking medication for high blood pressure or diabetes, you should consult a trusted medical professional before using this "dietary supplement". Zevia should not be used for contraceptive purposes.

Via: tipster Launchpad, interviews with persons associated with Zevia and research including the links in the article.

Tags: Aluminum | Australia | Corporate Responsibility | Drinks | Japan | United States