The Truth on Truvia

For better or for worse, we’re hell bent on finding or concocting the “perfect” non-caloric sweetener in this country. Call it the spirit of creative innovation – or capitalist enterprise. Call it incessant perpetuation of Americans’ bad eating habits. Call it a pragmatic step toward at least a more healthful alternative for what people will eat regardless.

First it was the pink packets, then the blue, then the yellow, and now the pleasantly, nature-inspired white and green foliage-designed envelopes. Truvia is a lucrative marketing merger of the “true,” (the essence?, the genuine?, the handy emotional affirmation?) with the herb stevia and all its natural (or novel) associations, depending on your familiarity with the natural foods (er, dietary supplement) arena.

Truvia is a creation of the Cargill Corporation, Big Agra giant. (We’re not sayin’, we’re just sayin’.) According to the company, it’s a non-caloric sweetener made from rebiana, an isolated and purified extract of the stevia leaf, a natural sweetener source originally from South America and now used in many corners of the world. Stevia, as we’ve reported on before, is considered safe by most experts, but it has not been approved by the FDA as a food ingredient in this and a number of European countries. (A small number of older and controversial rat studies found some association between high consumption and decreased fertility, lower birth weight and cancer. However, more recent research including a 2006 World Health Organization analysis found no evidence of negative health impact. Additionally, no health issues have been noted in the indigenous populations that have used stevia for generations or in Japan, where it is a very common and legally accepted sweetener used for decades.) In the U.S., stevia has been available but marketed instead as a dietary supplement. The biggest drawback for the sweetener in the minds of many consumers has been the slight (but distinct) aftertaste.

According to Cargill (and a number of tasters who either sampled the product at the company’s official rolling out event or who have purchased the product online), the plant selection and purification processes have done away with the offending aftertaste, leaving nothing but “clean, pure” sweetness. And taste testers seem to be responding positively as well, even preferring the sweetener to real sugar in many cases.

But what about the safety of the product and the whole “natural” claim? Is it really, as Cargill contends, a sweetener we can “feel good about”? We, of course, had to do some digging. Research has thus far been limited to several studies sponsored by Cargill itself. They were published together in a special supplement addition of the Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal this past July. The studies used both rats and humans as test subjects. Other than one study focused on reproductive impact, durations ranged from 4-16 weeks and used high doses of rebiana. According to the assembled research, there currently isn’t any indication that rebiana negatively impacts health. In healthy people, it didn’t raise blood pressure. It didn’t raise blood sugar in those with type 2 diabetes. Animal studies showed no signs of reproductive impact or harm to offspring. The rebiana substance was shown to be safely metabolized and secreted. The company adds that this research is meant to be examined in tandem with the plethora of existed studies on stevia – mainly steviol glycosides, which includes rebaudioside A, the primary element of Cargill’s rebiana.

As we speak, Truvia is in the midst of a nation-wide rollout. Having been first sold by select New York vendors and online, the product is making its way to more main street grocers. Additionally, consumers will increasingly find common food products made with Truvia in their supermarket aisles (including Coca-Cola-yeah!) as additional food and beverage applications are announced. We’ll see which ones are worth their salt – or their sweetener, we should say.

So, what’s our take on Truvia? In our minds the jury is still out. While the initial studies offer some degree of assurance, they’re extremely limited in terms of populations tested, biomarkers analyzed, and durations used. First off, it isn’t 100% clear that rebiana is entirely the physiologically-acting equal of other forms of stevia used throughout the world. Studies that last a mere 4-16 weeks don’t tell us much about the long-term effects of a substance. And though one study observed no impact on fertility or offspring in rats over two generations, somehow that still isn’t enough for us to recommend Truvia to our pregnant sister-in-law. Also, we wonder how well the substance will be tolerated in people with autoimmune disorders, certain food allergies, high blood pressure or other medical conditions. On a related note, we wish we knew more about potential substance interactions – how prescription drugs, hormonal therapies, or other medicinal treatments might alter the body’s processing and secretion of the substance over time. Finally, some critics also add that most of their stevia crops are generally grown in China under non-organic conditions. Given the recent problems with Chinese produced crops and medicinal substances (e.g. infant formula, pet food, heparin components), this fact doesn’t exactly inspire the deepest confidence.

Ultimately, our perspective on Truvia is the same as it is with any artificial/altered sweetener: ask yourself if the sweetened food/drink offers any real benefit (physical or otherwise) that you couldn’t get from the same or similar food/drink that’s unsweetened. If using an artificial/altered sweetener gives you an excuse to eat or drink things that probably aren’t good for you anyway (like Coca-Cola), we definitely say skip it. In this case, it’s just a crutch that perpetuates sweet cravings. If it allows you to have a sensible alternative for foods and drinks that offer you some kind of nutritional or personal benefit, then it might be a reasonable addition to your diet on occasion.

We’ll be watching as the news about Truvia unfolds and promise to bring you updates as they come along. In the meantime, we want to hear what you think of the latest sweetener to hit the shelves. Have you tried it? Do you intend to? Tell us your thoughts.

Further Reading:

On the Question of Sweetners

A Cranky Crab Confesses: Yes, I Use Splenda!

10 Health Marketing Buzz Words (Ripe for Skepticism)

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