Many people are now wondering what the stevia side effects might be since the FDA has finally approved this herb as a food additive.
Stevia has been used for years as a natural sweetener in many countries, but had met with much resistance in the United States until recently.
It is a perennial shrub (known as stevia rebaudiana) of the aster family that has been used for hundreds of years to sweeten foods and teas. The leaves of the plant contain chemicals called glycosides, the major one being stevioside.
Stevioside is used as a sweetener in Japan and Korea, where it is recognized as a safe food additive. As such it represents 40% of the Japanese sweetener market, and is even used by multinational food companies like Coca Cola to sweeten its products.
However, although safety has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies around the world, the FDA had been doing whatever it could for many years to keep it out of the country. They claimed that safety had not been confirmed, even though they had been made aware that there are no stevia side effects.
The FDA's reluctance to recognize its safety was no doubt due to pressure from the powerful sugar industry. They stood to lose millions of dollars if stevia - a safe, powerful and cheap alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners - was approved as a food additive in the United States.
Many groups protested the unfair FDA ruling. They claimed that the government is requiring more proof that there are no side effects than they do for other additives - including Nutra Sweet. The fact that there is so much evidence of safety and that it is being used in so many parts of the world for so many years should have been enough to convince the FDA that there are no health issues to be concerned about.
This is just another case of a powerful industry that stands to lose millions of dollars influencing the government to act against their competition.
Despite the FDA intervention, stevia was being sold legally in the United States, although with many restrictions. It was able to be marketed as a dietary supplement, but manufacturers were banned from making any claims as to its use as a sweetener, or any other reference indicating it can be a food additive. The FDA has cracked down hard on many stevia manufacturers that make such claims.
Many people with diabetes use stevia as it is several hundred times sweeter than sugar, yet does not effect insulin levels. There are several other natural herbal extracts like stevia that can help treat the many symptoms of diabetes - you can learn about them here.
**UPDATE** As of 2008 the FDA approved the glyocoside rebaudioside A, or reb A, as a food additive. It is now marketed under the names Truvia, SweetLeaf and PureVia, among others. At the end of last year, it gained approval in the EU.
Although it is a victory that it is now readily available, some are concerned that the stevia found on store shelves is far removed from the natural version. Like the other sugar substitutes such as aspartame and splenda, it may be heavily processed, negating the potential benefits. Hopefully pure versions will be made available in the coming months.