Is Truvia really a natural sweetener? Cargill has agreed to settle a proposed class action lawsuit that alleges the food company misled shoppers by marketing its Truvia consumer products (which contain stevia extract Reb-A and erythritol) as “natural.”
Natural is one of those words that possess the so-called “health halo effect.”
Elaine Koontz, a contributing dietitian to the professional website RD411, explains: “Simply put, the health halo effect leads people to overestimate the overall healthfulness of a food based on one narrow attribute.” There’s little doubt that, for most consumers, when something is labeled as natural they assume it is lower in calories – and maybe even good for you.
But a “natural cookie” is still a cookie; just because it’s labeled as natural doesn’t make it lower in calories… or sugar… or fat. I’ve seen the word natural on products ranging from fruit juice to candy.
According to the American Diabetes Association, the term natural is used very loosely when it comes to food – and there is not a standard definition for it. Food and Drug Administration policy does say that the term natural should apply to foods that do not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. But, see my article that urges consumers to tread carefully here. Don’t swallow label claims without first reading the ingredients. That is the only way you know what’s really in the package.
In the Cargill case, consumers took exception with calling Truvia, which is made from processing the stevia plant, “natural.” Rather than fighting a looming lawsuit, Cargill settled the case. Cargill will, going forward, add an asterisk to its “nature’s calorie-free sweetener” tagline to provide more information to consumers on the FAQ section of the website, or will change the tagline to better describe the process. Alternate wording could be “calorie-free sweetener from the stevia leaf” or something as accurately descriptive.
But what is the truth about Truvia and other sugar substitutes such as Pure Via, Splenda, or Equal? Are they really natural? Are they really safe?
According to MayoClinic.com a purified component form of the stevia plant — called rebaudioside A (rebiana) — is "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA and may be used as an artificial sweetener in foods and beverages.
There's no evidence that these “novel sweeteners” from stevia offer an advantage for weight loss over other less “natural” artificial sweeteners aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin, neotame, and sucralose – substances that have undergone rigorous testing by the FDA.
The FDA has established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for the amount that can be safely eaten. (NOTE: Aspartame is not recommended for people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a very rare condition where someone is unable to break down one of the amino acids used to make aspartame.)
Mayo.com reminds us that consumers should not eat unlimited amounts of sugar substitutes. For example, stevia extracts may cause mild side effects, such as nausea or a feeling of fullness.
Livestrong.com notes that the FDA does not approve crude stevia or whole leaf products because of possible health problems. Affects on blood sugar levels, cardiovascular and reproductive systems and the kidneys remain unclear.
The MayoClinic.com notes quite rightly that sugar substitutes can be confusing, especially if a product is labeled "natural" even though its processed or refined, as is the case with some stevia preparations.
Even more confusing, some artificial sweeteners are derived from naturally occurring substances. Sucralose (Splenda) is made from sugar that has been processed to change its molecular structure. It’s been tested, declared safe, but it’s not listed in the “natural sweetener” category.
For me, all approved non-nutritive sweeteners, including “novel” sweeteners and artificial sweeteners, have a place in my diet. When I want something sweet but don’t want to go over my calories for the day, that’s where I turn.
If I want the real thing, I’ll plan in advance and modify my diet to include it. And remember, just because it’s sugar-free doesn’t make it fat-free or calorie-free.
After all, you can’t fool Mother Nature!
Susan Burke March is Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, who as eDiet's Chief Nutritionist promotes the dietary health and well being of consumers worldwide.