Stevia has grown in popularity over the past several years, becoming popular as a “natural” alternative to sugar and calorie-free sweeteners. Since stevia is derived from a plant, is virtually calorie-free, and is sweeter than sugar, it seems like a no-brainer to start switching out sugar cubes for stevia packets. But is stevia healthy, or is it all hype? Here’s what research tells us so far about if stevia is safe and if you should be sweetening treats with it!
What is stevia?
Stevia’s claim to fame is that it’s a “natural” calorie-free sweetener derived from the stevia plant. The naturally sweet leaves of the whole plant, Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, have been used for centuries in South America, but stevia has made its way into mainstream use more recently.
You might assume that the powdered stevia you find on grocery store shelves is just ground up stevia leaves, making it a natural, unrefined sweetener. But that’s not the case! What’s marketed as stevia in stores is actually an isolated compound found in stevia leaves, called rebaudioside A (reb A, sometimes called rebiana). Stevia leaves contain several sweet and bitter compounds, so producers isolate the sweetest and least bitter compound, reb A, to create a product that’s less bitter than the whole leaf. In order to isolate reb A, the moisture from stevia leaves is extracted, resulting in a stevia extract that’s about half reb A. That extract is then chemically treated with ethanol or methanol to remove compounds other than reb A. The resulting reb A extract is super concentrated and is over 200 times sweeter than table sugar. This extract is then dehydrated to create powdered reb A, which is sold as powdered stevia extract.
So, is the stevia on grocery store shelves derived from the stevia plant? Yes. Is it a fully natural alternative to cane sugar? Hardly.
Is stevia safe?
Reb A isn’t the only stevia ingredient found in food products simply because it tastes better than the whole leaf. It’s actually the only stevia product allowed to be sold in the United States. The FDA has not approved whole stevia leaves or pure ground stevia for use in food products; only the highly purified reb A extract is considered Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA. This is likely a result of animal trials in the 1990’s where whole stevia was associated with increased infertility and renal issues. However, most of these studies look at effects of excessive consumption of stevia on rats, so we don’t have a firm grasp on what the effects of whole stevia are for humans – but it’s likely safe in moderation.
When it comes to the stevia products on the market today, remember that they’re really just isolated reb A, which has GRAS status from the FDA. These stevia products are also backed by the European Food Safety Authority and the World Health Organization as safe for consumption by adults, including pregnant and nursing women, and children.
All in all, stevia (as it’s sold on shelves, in its highly purified state) is generally considered safe for consumption. Since whole and ground stevia don’t have backing from the FDA, there isn’t nearly as much available research on them, but they’ve been used for centuries as natural sweeteners and are available as dietary supplements, which don’t have the same FDA regulations as food products.
Does stevia raise blood sugar?
Since stevia does not contain calories or carbohydrates, it does not raise blood sugar levels. That may be good news for those who have diabetes or are trying to control blood sugar levels, but it doesn’t mean that eating stevia constantly has no effects.
Whenever we eat something sweet, our brains and bodies assume that we’ve eaten some form of sugar. That starts up several reactions to handle the incoming caloric energy, even if what we’ve eaten is not, in fact, caloric. Insulin levels spike to deal with the expected blood sugar increase, but if they aren’t given any sugar to manage, insulin receptors can eventually get “tired” of responding to calls and send out less insulin in response to eating sweets. That can be detrimental when you eat something that actually has sugar in it, because your body has grown to assume it won’t need to address any blood sugar spikes resulting from sweet foods.
Another concern with stevia (and all other non-nutritive sweeteners) is that switching all of your sugar intake over to stevia doesn’t mean you’re no longer hooked on sweet stuff. Since stevia is much sweeter than cane sugar, your taste buds continue to crave sweetness when you eat stevia – and may even crave things gradually sweeter and sweeter.
Are stevia packets pure stevia?
Most people are familiar with the brand names Truvia and PureVia, which can be found in packets in plenty of coffee shops and in the baking aisles of most grocery stores. However, it’s important to note that these sugar substitutes are not pure stevia (not even pure reb A extract!). Truvia is mostly erythritol, a sugar alcohol, with stevia leaf extract and flavorings mixed in, while PureVia is stevia extract mixed with flavorings and dextrose and cellulose to add bulk.
Stevia In The Raw, which is usually marketed as a sugar substitute for baking, is mostly dextrose or maltodextrin (starches) mixed with stevia extract. Remember, pure stevia extract (reb A extract) is over 200 times sweeter than cane sugar, so in order for stevia products to “measure like sugar,” they have to be cut with starches – otherwise ½ a cup of pure stevia would be way sweeter than ½ a cup of sugar, and your cookie recipe wouldn’t taste so great.
image: PRESENT Diabetes
Pure stevia is available in stores, but it’s not usually sold in packets for dumping into a cup of coffee. Since it’s so much sweeter than cane sugar, just a sprinkle from a larger container should be plenty to sweeten most foods. You can also find pure stevia in liquid form (before it gets dehydrated into reb A powder), but make sure you check the ingredients list on liquid versions too! If you’re looking for pure stevia, the ingredients list should include stevia extract, rebaudiosides, or steviol glycosides, and water or alcohol if it’s a liquid extract – not maltodextrin or sugar substitutes other than stevia!
The bottom line: Is stevia healthy?
Using stevia in moderation is most likely safe, but more research is certainly needed. The stevia products available in grocery stores aren’t necessarily the all-natural products they’re advertised as, but they’re no worse than other sugar substitutes, in my opinion. Since there are no strong links between stevia and cancer, I’d say you’re better off grabbing stevia than another sugar substitute, but make sure you buy pure stevia if you choose to use it.
What’s even better than sweetening with stevia? Using fewer sweeteners overall, and training your taste buds to really appreciate sweet foods and real sugar on the rare occasions that you eat something super sweet. Not sure where to begin with addressing your sweet tooth? Working with a registered dietitian is always your best bet for successfully achieving your health goals!