Alternative Sweeteners
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | April 22, 2008

The world has a sweet tooth. We often think that the United States is the only country that like sweets, but that’s just not true. What is true is that many sweeteners other than sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn sugars are used to sweeten foods. This Newsletter will examine two alternative sweeteners out of the dozens used throughout the world: stevia and agave nectar.

Stevia is probably one of the most commonly used alternative sweeteners in the United States and it isn’t even approved for that purpose. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved it as a dietary supplement but has withheld other uses such as a sweetener in foods or even as a stand-alone sweetener. Whether due to pressure from the sugar industry or just due to lack of data, stevia is not considered Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS), and thus it can’t be used for those purposes. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not commonly used for those purposes.

Stevia is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It has been used as a sweetener for centuries in Paraguay and surrounding countries. One advantage is that it contains no calories when used as directed. The chemical constituent in stevia appears to be steviosides, and most supplements are standardized to specific percentages of steviosides to assure consistent sweetness. While not approved in the U.S., Japan has embraced this sweetener, and it’s commonly used to sweeten many drinks and foods.

The primary questions are these: is stevia safe? And can diabetics use stevia as a sweetener? In a review article, safety issues were examined in detail including carcinogenic propensity and fertility complications (1). The conclusion was that stevia is safe when used as a sweetener.

In a recent study examining the oxidative-damage potential of steviosides in test-tube studies, a protective effect on DNA was observed (2). Researchers concluded that there were potential beneficial antioxidant abilities of stevia that should be examined in greater detail.

Stevia has been used in a pilot study with type-1 and type-2 diabetics (3). No negative effects were discovered on blood sugar or blood pressure; there were no pharmacological effects detrimental to the subjects. That doesn’t mean that if you’re a diabetic you should start using stevia--it means you should discuss with your physician whether stevia is a good choice for you considering your metabolic profile.

Agave Nectar
Agave is a form of cactus that grows in various regions of Mexico. There are several varieties including Agave tequilana, which is used in the production of tequila. The core of the cactus is processed with heat to extract syrup containing high fructose. Because fructose is sweeter than glucose, less is needed to make foods sweet. The percentage of fructose within agave nectar can vary by manufacturer, so be sure to read labels carefully.

Researchers conducted a study comparing animals fed a diet a 10% agave with a group fed a standard diet (4). The agave-fed mice ate less, gained less weight, and had lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Mice are not humans, but this study demonstrates potential positive effects of regular use of agave compared to the typical American diet.

Does this mean it’s appropriate for diabetics? Fructose, such as that found in agave nectar, has a lower glycemic index than glucose, but unlike stevia it still has calories. It’s important to discuss the use of agave nectar with your physician and to purchase an agave product that contains the highest fructose percentage. As your doctor will tell you, the only way to know it will work for you is to monitor your blood sugar in relation to consuming agave.

Bottom Line
Our sweet tooth is not going away, and there are many sweeteners on the market. Many people want to avoid the use of artificial sweeteners, whether that’s justified or not. Stevia and agave are two alternative sweeteners that may help fill that need. Depending on how you’re going to use each product, whether in drinks or in recipes, read the labels thoroughly in order to add the proper amount for the desired sweetness levels.

  1. Geuns JM. Stevioside. Phytochemistry. 2003 Nov;64(5):913-21.

  2. Ghanta S, et al. Oxidative DNA damage preventive activity and antioxidant potential of Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni, a natural sweetener. J Agric Food Chem. 2007 Dec 26;55(26):10962-7.

  3. Barriocanal LA, et al. Apparent lack of pharmacological effect of steviol glycosides used as sweeteners in humans. A pilot study of repeated exposures in some normotensive and hypotensive individuals and in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2008 Mar 5 [Epub ahead of print].

  4. Urías-Silvas JE, et al. Physiological effects of dietary fructans extracted from Agave tequilana Gto. And Dasylirion spp. Br J Nutr. 2008 Feb; 99(2):254-61.
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