(Fake) sugah sugah: Stevia extracts and powders

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you’ve probably heard of stevia, the latest Wunderkind to grace the alternative sweetener stage.

Stevia, which is actually a genus of herbs in the sunflower family, is native to subtropical and tropical areas spanning from western North America (Arizona, New Mexico) to South America. With natural extracts of the plant up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, stevia has garnered much press coverage in recent years for its potential use as a natural (and zero-calorie!) sweetener for people on carbohydrate-controlled diets, particularly those with Diabetes.

Stevia’s availability as a sweetener varies from country to country. The herb has been widely utilized as a sweetener in Japan since the 1970’s, when conglomerate Morita Kagaku Kogyo Ltd. decided to cultivate the herb as an alternative to artificial sweeteners like saccharin (Sweet n’ Low) and cyclamate.

In the U.S., stevia cultivation and use is not as straightforward. Citing (poorly-constructed) animal studies that linked stevia and increased cancer risk, the FDA controversially labeled the herb an “unsafe food additive” and restricted its import beginning in 1991. Arizona congressman John Kyl was one of many to criticize the ruling, calling the ban against stevia “a restraint of trade to benefit the artificial sweetener industry.”

Nature’s “sweet herb” remained an herba non grata until 1994’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act pushed the FDA to revise its ruling and allow stevia to be approved as a dietary supplement. The FDA acquiesced, but maintained its position that stevia not be approved as a food additive.

Stevia remains banned in much of the E.U. (France and Belgium are exceptions), as well as Singapore and Hong Kong, given the unresolved question of whether its metabolism yields mutagenic compounds. Recent data compiled by the World Health Organization has suggested that such legislation may be obsolete, however.

Tug-of-war between the artificial sweetener industry and proponents of stevia aside, the U.S. market for the herb is as robust as ever. Coca-Cola rolled out Truvia in 2009, a commercial brand stevia sweetener that contains sugar alcohol erythritol and stevia extract Rebiana, and has since released stevia-sweetened beverages. PepsiCo has also followed suit with their PureVia sweetener.

On the personal scale, Grub first readers know that I have recently made it my mission to test various naturally- (as opposed to synthetically) derived sweeteners. I have two products to report on in this installment of Rate That Natural Sweetener– Erba Dolce stevia extract, and Navitas Naturals’ organic stevia powder.

I selected the Erba Dolce from my favorite store ever, a.k.a. Northampton’s Deals n’ Steals, because it was the cheapest stevia extract they had at the time. A white granulated powder, I loved the taste of “South America’s Premium Stevia” so much so that I recently helped myself to several teaspoons of the stuff (sans beverage, that is) during a particular bout of sugar craving. The Columbian-produced sweetener contains stevia extracts stevioside and rebaudoside A and maltodextrin, a common thickening agent.

Having burned through my Erba Dolce supply, the Stevia Gods (or Pa B., in this case) smiled upon me and kindly replaced my stevia stores in the form of an eight-ounce bag of organic green stevia powder.

I must have missed the “green” on the label, because I was somewhat shocked upon opening the goods to be staring into a bag of fine green powder. While I have tasted “fresh” stevia leaves (an uncle grows his own supply), my loving relationship with Erba Dolce’s white powder had left me unprepared for stevia in its unadulterated form.

Navitas’ green stevia is indeed sweet, but has a decidedly different taste from that of Erba Dolce. The powder has a slight leafy taste, but is not overwhelmingly vegetal. And, not being a concentrated extract, its sweetness is not as bold. Regardless, I have since sweetened coffee, hot cocoa and chai tea with the powder, and have not been dissapointed with the results.

When it is time to restock the stevia, however, I imagine that I will choose an extract like Erba Dolce’s. Erba simply tastes more like sugar, a taste I am apparently unwilling to give up on while in pursuit of that perfect natural sweetener.


It ain’t that simple

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Now that I am nearing the end of my college career, I am often asked a) what I majored in, and b) what I plan to do with my degree.

When I reply that I plan to further my education and earn my R.D. and M.S. in nutrition, I get a variety of responses. Some people express a shared interest in “all that healthy eating business” and wish me well, while others seem to think that nutrition is less worthy a field than, say, medicine.

Such folks warn me that my future schooling will rely too heavily on the teachings of what they see as a corrupt and power-hungry FDA, and remind me that there is more to good nutrition than the traditional food pyramid.

Others wonder why I need graduate school to further my understanding of nutrition; can’t anyone brand a diet and supplement philosophy these days?

I choose not to engage in the majority of these conversations. I don’t bother informing my well-meaning advising staff that I am deeply aware of the power of a particular food or crop lobby to suade a FDA ruling, or that I find it paramount to keep abreast of research in all areas of the field of nutrition, including that which applies to “alternative” philosophies like macrobiotics and Chinese medicine.

It is true that a slick marketing scheme and sufficient capital can make you rich selling açaí berries or a bottle of goo professing to “cut fat FAST,” but the field of medicine faces and has always faced the same quackery. A little trephination for your epilepsy, perhaps?

If nutrition is to medicine as food is to pharmaceutical drugs, than the two differ only on one key point– pharmaceuticals are available largely only by prescription, while that which is “prescribed” by nutritionists and dieticians is available everywhere you look. Whether it is a King-sized Snickers staring you down in the checkout line at the grocery store or the meat loaf your mom lovingly crafts every time you visit home, the genre of medicine known as food is omnipresent.

This omnipresence is both a blessing and a curse; anyone has the ability to treat a calcium deficiency with milk or leafy greens, or waning energy with a slice of whole-grain toast and peanut butter, but this copious supply of food also has its drawbacks. 24 hour-access to food and food and more food ensures that the quackery reaches us that much faster, and in places we might not expect.

Stopping into Walgreens on my way home from class the other day, I wandered through the aisles looking for a couple of things. In between the vitamins and cold remedies was a small display of clearance items. Glittery pens and adult diapers dominated, but there was also an abundance of diet products– a package of cardboard treats care of the Hollywood Cookie Diet, some Hoodia spray (really? I mean, really?) and various other items claiming to remove those pesky 20/30/[fill in the blank] extra pounds. The bullshit might not have been selling well, but it had proved just how ubiquitous it was.

Photo credit: http://www.hoodispray.com/

In light of all this bunk, it is understandable to question the validity of nutrition as a science. How can the business of feeding one’s self be considered a “science” when it is within our own capacity to eat in a way that protects us from everything from migraines to chronic disease? And when it is so patently easy for the bullshit to slip through the cracks?

My answer is this: Despite how frequently the powers that be of the nutrition world change their mind about the merits or dangers of coffee, chocolate or red meat, it is still the scientific method that guides their inquiry, just like the medical field.

It is the scientific method that allows biomedical research studies to be approved by an IRB, and to test the impact of a beta carotene or vitamin D supplement on the experimental group. And it is the scientific method that informs what, if any, conclusions can be drawn from a particular study’s results.

Say the group receiving the supplement experienced better health markers than the group receiving a placebo. Before it can be argued that the particular nutrient or vitamin was responsible for the improvement in health, questions must be asked of the experimental design. Was the study double-blind? In other words, did neither the study’s participants nor the research staff know which treatment a particular group was receiving?

If the study was indeed double-blind, are there confounding factors that must be considered prior to formulating any conclusions? Is there something about the experimental group that might also be responsible for improved health? Better fitness habits, for example?

I don’t mean to bore you with the remnants of my Psych. 192: Research Methods knowledge, but I do hope to help convince you that good nutrition, like good medicine, is a scientifically rigorous discipline.

Anyone can manufacture a product professing to do x, y or z, but it wasn’t some slick bullshit artist who was responsible for figuring out that Vitamin D is necessary for proper calcium absorption.

Just sayin’– it isn’t that simple.

Five common food additives demystified


I had another post in the works, but after doing a little nutrition-related reading tonight, was inspired to write about something different– the many food additives and preservatives that make their way into our food supply.

If you have visited a supermarket recently, whether in Buenos Aires or Anywhere, U.S.A., you have likely bought something that contained soy lecithin, maltodextrin or any number of natural or synthetically-derived ingredients. For the non-chemist or food scientist among us, the often-extensive list of additives that accompany any given processed food can be overwhelming. Pronouncing the malto-, mono- and oligo-‘s is difficult enough, but recognizing and understanding what said chemicals do in the body is another story entirely.

The inspiration for this post comes from “Eat This, Not That: the Supermarket Survival Guide.” Written by the Editor-in-Chief of Men’s Health magazine and the Food and Nutrition Editor of the same publication, the pocket-sized book uses images to illustrate easy food swaps that can be made for more nutritious and less caloric options.

While the book sometimes favors chemically-saturated items in lieu of their more wholesome and sometimes more caloric counterparts (boo on you, David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding!) , its food additive glossary is a tremendously helpful resource.

Rather than discussing every food additive you might encounter on a trip to Stop & Shop or Safeway, I’ve selected five of the most common additives to everything from chocolate ice cream to instant oatmeal.

Thanks to David and Matt for the info!

1. Lecithin

What? Lecithin is a naturally-occuring emulsifier that keeps fats from going rancid. Lecithin is commonly derived from egg yolks or soybeans. Hence “soy lecithin.”

Found in: Ice cream, margarine, pastries, cooking oil sprays.

The 411: According to the book’s authors, lecithin is a great source of choline, an organic compound that helps cells and nerves communicate and play a role in digesting fats and cholesterol.

Safe? Seems it is.

2. Maltodextrin

What? M’dextrin is a caloric sweetener and “flavor enhancer” derived from rice, potatoes or cornstarch. After being treated with enzymes and acids, m’dextrin becomes a fibrous thickening agent.

Found in: Canned fruit, instant pudding, sauces, dressings and chocolate.

The 411: M’dextrin is like any other sugar in that it contributes largely nutrient-empty calories and raises blood glucose and insulin levels. Fine in moderation, like any other sugar source.

Safe? Yes.

3. Mono- and diglycerides

What? Mono- and diglycerides are fats added to food items that serve to bind liquids to fatty acids. Mono- and diglycerides occur naturally in foods.

Found in: Peanut butter, ice cream, margarine, baked goods and “whipped topping.”

The 411: M- and d-glycerides, like any other fat source, contribute 9 calories per gram, but are otherwise harmless.

Safe? Yes, ma’am.

4. Xanthan gum

What? A common emulsifier and thickener made from glucose; its synthesis involves a bacterium called Xanthomonas campestris.

Found in: Whipped toppings, salad dressings, marinades, custards, pie filling.

The 411: No adverse effects have been associated with xanthan gum.

Safe? See the 411.

5. Inulin

What? Inulin is a naturally occurring plant fiber found in fruits and vegetables. Inulin is commonly added to foods to boost their fiber content or build the “mouth feel” that fat would otherwise contribute. Most of the inulin found in foods today is extracted from the chicory root or synthesized from sucrose.

Found in: Smoothies, meal-replacement bars and anything touting a “now contains fiber!” claim.

The 411: The soluble and insoluble fibers in, say, an apple, help regulate bowel function, stabilize blood sugar and help the body absorb nutrients like calcium and iron. How inulin that has been isolated from a plant source and added to something that never had any or much fiber to begin with (e.g. juice) is as of yet unclear. My opinion? Don’t waste your money on a product that uses inulin to boost fiber counts when its benefits and efficacy have not been established. Simply implanting a nutrient from one food source to another may not guarantee that its health benefits are transmitted as well.

Safe? Yes, but worthwhile? That is up to you, dear consumer.

The five additives I profiled all appear to be harmless additions to foods, but many more (MSG, olestra, aspartame) are and have been associated with negative health effects in humans and in animal subjects.

All told, try to select foods in as pure a form as possible when grocery shopping. Choose deliciously sweet Pink Lady apples rather than a pink-colored drinkable “yoghurt product,” and foods with as short an ingredient list as possible. Between the added cost and the lack of solid evidence regarding many of these food additives, it may be best to stay the course and do what our ancestors did for thousands of year before us– eat simple foods.

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