How Natural Is This Sweetener?

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The April 26 New York Times Magazine carried a seductive ad on page 15 for PepsiCo's "Trop50 orange juice goodness with 50 percent less calories and sugar...And no artificial sweeteners" PepsiCo performs this miracle by diluting the juice by half with water (really, you could do this at home). But in case the result isn't sweet enough for you, Trop50 adds the sweetener Stevia.

PepsiCo can get away with claiming that its juice drink has no artificial sweeteners. Because Stevia is isolated from leaves of the Stevia plant, the FDA lets companies claim it is "natural."

We can debate whether a chemical sweetener isolated from Stevia leaves is really "natural" but here's another problem: Stevia doesn't taste like sugar. Companies have to fuss with it to cover up its off taste. And, they must do so "without detracting from the perceived benefits of its natural status." Flavor companies are working like mad to find substances that block Stevia's bitter taste, mask its off flavors, and extend its sweetness, while staying within the scope of what the FDA allows as "natural."

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a Stevia PR representative eager for me to see the company's website. "Naturally delicious," anyone?

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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