Is it better to sweeten with Splenda, the McNeil Nutritionals brand of sucralose, or with one of the many brands of stevia? I keep changing my mind on this question and going back and forth between them. I suspect that I’m not the only one puzzling over this issue.
I’ve just switched back to stevia. It wasn’t because of any new information or sudden insight. It was partly because I have begun to accept that people and organizations I respect prefer stevia.
The natural foods stores, Whole Foods and Wild Oats, where I almost buy everything else that I eat, don’t sell Splenda. Andrew Weil, M.D., the leading exponent of the integrative medicine, which I believe in myself, prefers stevia to any of the artificial sweeteners.
"The only non-caloric sweetener I recommend is stevia, an herb in the chrysanthemum family native to Paraguay," he writes. "Stevia is safe for diabetics and is widely used as a sweetener around the world, especially in Japan and Brazil."
Stevia is indeed natural. But natural isn’t necessarily safe. Think of all the poisonous mushrooms, to say nothing of strychnine and curare.
It’s hard to determine the advantages and disadvantages of the natural stevia, which is essentially untested, against the artificial Splenda that has been tested. Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary, McNeil Nutritionals, advertises that Splenda is "Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar."
In fact lawsuits are pending that alleges the company is sugar-coating Splenda to consumers. The Sugar Association, Merisant Worldwide, which makes rival artificial sweeteners Equal and NutraSweet, and a group of individuals have filed three class-action suits again McNeil Nutritionals. They claim that company misleads consumers into believing Splenda is a natural product.
Splenda also doesn’t compare with stevia in a respect that is important to people with diabetes. Splenda does have a glycemic index and some calories. That’s because the manufacturers of Splenda (as well as the people who make aspartame) bulk it up with small amounts of maltodextrin, which is high glycemic.
Bulking up was what tricked me for a long time into thinking that Splenda must be a lot less expensive than stevia. But you use much less stevia to get the same amount of sweetness.
Stevia hasn’t gone through the Food and Drug Administration’s testing procedure. But ever since 1994 stevia has been available as "a dietary supplement." But this strange law, offered up by our Congress to appease the vitamin and supplement industry, forbids the sale of stevia as a sweetener - the only thing that we use it for. That’s why you won’t find it in the same aisle as sugar and honey at Whole Foods or Wild Oats, but rather in the areas where they sell vitamins, herbs, and such.
Because people in South American have used stevia for centuries and because many more in Japan, Korea, and China have used it for 20 years or so, many people argue that it must be safe. But it is not generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, the FDA’s category for food ingredients like sugar that have been used so long that they predate premarket testing.
You can get stevia in three forms, and I’ve tried them all. The most natural and at the same time the least satisfactory is the powdered green leaf. It has a bitter after-taste. You can buy stevia in liquid form, and some people might like to get it this way, but I don’t. My preferred way, which I think is also the most common way, is a white extract of stevia.
I’ve tried all the major brands of stevia. Some of them do have a bitter after-taste just like the raw leaf does. Right now I prefer the Now Foods "Stevia Extract" and the NuNaturals "NuStevia," neither of which have a bitter after-taste.
Still, Splenda is clearly superior to stevia is one respect. You can cook with it. Stevia doesn’t brown, crystallize, retain moisture, or make foods gooey. So don’t expect me to throw out the Splenda that I have on hand now.
See what nutrition expert Cynthia Haines has to say about the safety of artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda.
Interested in other sites about the effects of artificial sweeteners? See this list of sites that a community member has put together.
David Mendosa is a journalist who learned in 1994 that he has type 2 diabetes, which he now writes about exclusively. He has written thousands of diabetes articles, two books about it, created one of the first diabetes websites, and publishes the monthly newsletter, “Diabetes Update.” His very low-carbohydrate diet, current A1C level of 5.3, and BMI of 19.8 keep his diabetes in remission without any drugs. He can be found on Twitter @davidmendosa and on Facebook at David Mendosa.