It's a philosophical debate, really.
This is what the leaves of a stevia plant look like.
Aneta_Gu via Getty Images
This is what the leaves of a stevia plant look like.

When it comes to sugar-alternative sweeteners, stevia is set to take the market share in 2017. And one of the reasons it’s so popular is that sweeteners using stevia leaf extract are touted as being “natural,” containing “no artificial sweeteners.” But how natural is it, really?

Unlike other zero-calorie sweeteners that are produced in a lab, stevia leaf extract is derived from the plant stevia rebaudiana that grows in South America. The leaves of the plant contain sweet compounds, stevioside and rebaudioside A, that are used to make a sweetener hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Because stevia leaf extract originates from a plant, sweeteners made with stevia have generally been marketed as natural. But not everyone agrees.

The Daily Beast, for example, penned a piece titled The Bitter Truth About Stevia: It Ain’t “Natural” that underlines big food’s hand in producing the sweetener.

Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, wrote a piece on her blog titled Stevia and Other “Natural” Sweeteners: Are They? that points out that stevia leaf extract is indeed processed in a lab through the use of ethanol.

We decided it was time to get to the bottom of the natural debate.

What is natural, anyway?

Natural is a term that doesn’t really mean a whole lot in the food world. For the record, the term “natural” is not currently regulated by the FDA.

“The FDA has not engaged in rule making to establish a formal definition for the term ’natural,′ but we expect the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food,” a representative from the FDA told HuffPost.

So, is stevia leaf extract natural?

Stevia leaf extract does come from a natural source (the stevia plant), but according to Nestle the leaves are processed in a lab with ethanol. Does the processing make it no longer natural? The answer lands in a gray area.

Stevia leaf extract is generally marketed as natural despite its processing, since many foods are processed before they get to us. And then there are the actual sweeteners that use stevia, such as SweetLeaf, which are made with other ingredients (in SweetLeaf’s case, silica and inulin). Even though these two ingredients are “naturally occurring,” do they still constitute as natural if they were added to the sweetener?

It’s a question that no one is able to definitively answer. Consider high fructose corn syrup, for example: many people, particularly the FDA, do not consider it a natural sweetener, even though it is processed from a natural source, corn.

“Where do you draw the line?” Eric Walters, associate dean for research and professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, asked in an email to HuffPost.Would you rather ‘process’ a walnut by taking off its shell, or eat it in its natural state?”

It’s a philosophical debate.

Walters has studied artificial sweeteners for the past 25 years, and has even penned a book on the subject. Even so, he says it’s really a philosophical debate when deciding whether the processing of stevia still allows it to be called natural.

“If you were to eat raw coffee beans, you would not recognize them as coffee. They must be fermented, dried, and roasted to produce the flavor you expect from coffee. The roasting pyrolyzes fats, proteins and sugars, producing dozens of pyrazines and other aromatic chemical substances that many of us have grown to love.”

At the end of the day, it’s up to you.

Whether or not stevia leaf extract is natural depends on how you define natural ― at least until the FDA starts regulating this term.

“In direct response to consumer requests that the FDA explore the use of the term ‘natural’ on food labels, the agency asked for information and public comment on the use of this term in the labeling of human food products,” shared a representative from the FDA. “We are currently reviewing comments submitted to the public docket on use of the term ‘natural’ on food labels to help determine next steps.”

Until then, you decide.

For the record, Walters uses regular sugar, and he uses it in moderation. Walters said, ”I think stevia tastes funny (bitter, bad temporal profile, and a weird licorice-like taste).”

You can take that with a grain of salt (or stevia).

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