In a time when sugar consumption seems to be at an all-time high, you’ve likely come across stevia as a potential alternative. It’s been touted as the better option and much better than artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes – especially, some sources say, since it comes from a plant. And it’s easy to see why it has caught on: A zero-calorie sweetener from a plant? Why not?
But what about the fact that it’s much sweeter than sugar? What about side effects? And does it affect your blood sugar? Let’s take a look.
What exactly is stevia?
Stevia is a bushy shrub that is part of the sunflower family. Also called Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, it originated in South America over 200 years ago. Today, China is the leading exporter of the sweetener, though it is also produced in other countries.
Stevia’s active compounds (the sweet parts of the leaves) are called stevia glycosides. Not only popular, stevia is also very potent – almost 300 times sweeter than sugar.
You may think you’re getting the benefits of consuming plants when you add this sweetener to your coffee or baked goods, but the truth is it goes through heavy processing to get into the granular form that you know. The glycosides are first extracted, then filtered, and finally dehydrated before they are ready to go into your favorite products. Because it is so sweet, many manufacturers combine it with other products, like dextrose, maltodextrin, inulin, or erythritol, to even out the sweetness.
Benefits of stevia
Stevia is most likely safe for people with diabetes.
The American Diabetes Association reports stevia is not broken down by the body, meaning it passes through without providing calories. They claim the lack of metabolization could possibly lead to better long-term blood sugar, weight, and/or cardio-metabolic health.
Stevia could be good for weight loss or maintenance.
One theory indicates that because stevia is not broken down by the body, it provides zero calories, whereas sugar is broken down and absorbed, providing calories to the body. This theory has not yet been proven, and the body is complex – not to mention everyone is different and stevia’s impact on one person’s ability to lose weight or maintain weight loss will differ from someone else’s.
Side effects and precautions
Only parts of the whole plant are generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), high-purity steviol glycosides (the extract of the stevia plant we see in stores) are considered generally safe for use in food. However, the FDA stated that stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not GRAS and do not have FDA approval for use in food.
Stevia has the potential to spike blood sugar.
Though small, a study conducted in 2016 illustrated that after drinking beverages sweetened with no-calorie sweeteners (such as stevia), the test subject’s blood sugar spiked much more than when they consumed beverages with real sugar. This illustrates that further research is needed to determine the true effects of no-calorie sweeteners on blood sugar balance, especially over a longer period.
Stevia may affect appetite.
Some actually think you may end up eating more after thinking you have “saved” calories from not consuming sugar. And, of course, there is the question of how appetite is affected by consuming something like stevia.
Stevia and gut bacteria
Gut health is an important and constant source of discussion these days. As more people are conscious of what they’re ingesting, many are questioning whether stevia and other zero-calorie sweeteners can affect concentrations of beneficial gut bacteria and cause dysbiosis.
Not only does the gut assist in digestion, but gut health is also a predictor of a healthy immune system and disease prevention. Variations in gut bacteria could also negatively affect body weight, triglycerides, and levels of high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the “good” cholesterol – all risk factors of heart disease.
Pregnancy and stevia
Steviol glycosides are considered safe, but whole-leaf or raw products are not. Because there is limited research on the impact of no-calorie sweeteners on fertility or pregnancy outcomes, it’s suggested you stick to FDA-approved products or another approved sweetening alternative.
Children and stevia consumption
This is another area where more research is needed. Stevia is thought to be a good alternative to help children cut down on sugar consumption. The daily acceptable limit for children is 1.8 milligrams of sugar per pound of body weight, which is easy to consume quickly. When it comes to children, limiting their intake of any form of sugar and prioritizing a varied diet is suggested for supporting overall health.
Is stevia worse than sugar?
This is difficult to answer. Yes, stevia is derived from plants, but ultimately it’s mixed with other sweeteners to even it out. The research is not entirely clear on the safety of stevia, how the body metabolizes it, or if it spikes your blood sugar, leading to other health complications.
Whether you choose stevia or another sugar alternative as a sweetener, it’s ultimately up to you. It’s important to keep in mind the IIN core concept of bio-individuality – what works for one person may not necessarily work for another – and you must find the foods and lifestyle practices that work best for you and your unique body and health circumstances. Staying informed of the latest nutrition science research is a great way to feel empowered about your food and health choices.