After gaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 2008, the all-natural sweetener, stevia, has made its way into major food and beverage products including Coca-Cola, Tropicana orange juice, and Crystal Light. Now, farmers around the United States are calling for a switch from tobacco crops to stevia plants.
With zero calories and a sweet taste, stevia has become a favored artificial drink sweetener for people looking to slim down. Stevia manufacturers such as Truvia and Splenda derive the product from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. The market for stevia was estimated at $58 billion in 2010, California-based agribusiness Stevia First told Good Morning America. Farmers are especially eager for the change due to the similarity between the two crops. Both stevia and tobacco are grown under the same climate and soil conditions. They also require the same equipment and cultivation methods.
According to the World Health Organization, stevia has the potential to replace 20 percent to 30 percent of all artificial sweeteners. Agriculture manufacturers also point to the increasing number of obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease that are caused by sugar consumption.
Although some U.S. agriculture manufacturers believe stevia will provide a healthier and cost-effective solution to the dwindling tobacco market, certain health care professionals are skeptical about the sugar substitute's healthy qualities. A recent study out of the Yale University School of Medicine shows signaling in the brain that causes us to consume more calories throughout the day when it detects the “energyless” sweet flavor of artificial sweeteners.
A team of Yale researchers fed mice sugar or artificial sweeteners and tested how the brain differentiates each substance through behavioral testing and brain scanning. Results determined that a neurotransmitter — dopamine — involved with the brain’s reward center will only arise when sugar is actually broken down.
“The consumption of high-calorie beverages is a major contributor to weight gain and obesity, even after the introduction of artificial sweeteners to the market. We believe that the discovery is important because it shows how physiological states may impact on our choices between sugars and sweeteners,” said lead researcher Ivan de Araujo, a professor at Yale University.
Araujo and his colleagues suggest a combination of sugar and artificial sweeteners to create a “happy medium” with our metabolism. “According to the data, when we apply substances that interfere with a critical step of the ‘sugar-to-energy pathway,' the interest of the animals in consuming artificial sweetener decreases significantly, along with important reductions in brain dopamine levels,” Araujo added.
While stevia has gained FDA approval, the FDA still recommends only a certain daily amount of artificial sweetener. The FDA establishes an acceptable daily intake for all consumer products that is around 100 times less than the smallest amount that could cause health concerns. In most cases, stevia products are “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA.