Stevia: Healthy or Hype?

By Katie Trant | Last Updated: February 5, 2015

Stevia: Healthy or Hype?

Stevia: Healthy or Hype?
Since stevia hit the markets in 2008 it’s exploded in popularity. But what is it? Is it safe? And is it healthy or hype? Read on to find out!

What is stevia?

Stevia is a plant native to South America that has been traditionally used to sweeten beverages. The Guarani Indians in Paraguay have used stevia since the 16th century, crushing the leaves to sweeten tea and medicine.

In the mid-20th century researchers working with the stevia plant isolated the sweetest compounds in the plant, which are called steviol glycosides. The best tasting of these is called Reuaudioside A, which is over 200 times sweeter than an equal weight of table sugar.

The use of stevia extracts was not approved in the US until 2008 when sweeteners made from Rebaudioside A were first accepted as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA.

Stevia extracts are marketed under the brand names TruVia, PureVia, Sweetleaf, Steviacane, and Stevia in the Raw, to name a few. The FDA has not permitted the use of whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts, as their use in food is not currently considered GRAS.

While the word ‘stevia’ technically refers only to the whole plant, to keep things simple we’ll use it to refer to the steviol glycosides on the market as sweeteners.

Is it natural?

Well yes. And no.

Stevia is considered a non-nutritive sweetener, since, at the quantities typically used, it is all but free from calories. Unlike other non-nutritive sweeteners, such as aspartame or acesuflame-K, stevia is derived from a plant, which means that it can be marketed with the word ‘natural’ and appeal to those looking for a natural low-calorie sweeteners.

In the whole-leaf state, stevia triggers the tongue’s taste receptors for both sweet and bitter. Food scientists have figured out how to chemically alter the molecule and remove the less appealing bitter parts.

So if by natural you mean, “originally comes from a plant,” then yes. But if by natural you mean, “whole, holistic, or unadulterated,” then no, the stevia on the market today most definitely does not fit this definition. And not all stevia extracts are created equal! So do your homework on stevia brands to find one with limited additives and an extraction process you’re comfortable with.

Is it safe?

We think so.

It is important to note that the FDA has not approved whole stevia leaves or crude ground stevia as GRAS, only highly purified stevia extracts. This is due to some long-standing concerns that stevia may have an effect on blood sugar control, as well as on reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems. But, bear in mind that the products on the market today are not stevia, they’re highly purified extracts and are seen as GRAS.

As with so many other substances, the negative effects of stevia have been noted over the course of animal testing and at very high levels of intake, and since people are not mice, we don’t know whether these effects will carry through to humans. There’s a good chance that light to moderate consumption of stevia is safe.

But here’s the thing. There is a brain-body reaction to sweetness (called the cephalic phase response) that starts with receptors on the tongue. Whenever we eat or drink anything sweet, our bodies assume we’ve taken in food energy and set in motion a chain of reactions to deal with the incoming energy, regardless of whether actual calories accompany that sweet taste or not. If we set this chain of events into action enough times without incoming energy, the body begins to reprogram its self in a way that hinders the ability to regulate blood sugar in the long term. Think about it sort of like the boy who cried wolf. And, we have sweetness receptors in the intestines, liver, pancreas, and brain to consider as well.

We also respond hormonally to sweeteners, and there is increasing evidence that non-nutritive sweeteners may even impact the makeup of our gut mircobiome. We just don’t know what the long-term implications of this might be.

Another concern with using high-intensity sweeteners such as stevia is a reprogramming of our taste for sweets – our palates can change over time with such intense sweet flavours.

The bottom line

Is stevia healthy or hype? Honestly, I don’t know.

At the end of the day, stevia comes from a plant, so I suspect it will turn out to be a much better option than artificially derived sweeteners such as aspartame. The reality is that there just hasn’t been enough research on the effect of non-nutritive and intense sweeteners, and even the current rate of sugar-sweetened sweet consumption has never been seen before in human history. We’re probably 4 or 5 decades way from being able to really understand the impact of this kind of sweetness in our diets.

I personally don’t use stevia because it’s out of my comfort zone, and I firmly believe that there’s no magic bullet. If something seems to good to be true (like an amazing all natural zero calorie sweetener?), it probably is.

If you want to use stevia, my advice is to use it in moderation just as you would with any other natural sweetener such as honey, maple syrup, or good old-fashioned cane sugar.

Stevia image via Shutterstock

About Katie Trant

Katie is a university-trained nutritionist and professional writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. She is a vegetarian of more than two decades, and is passionate about real food. Her blog The Muffin Myth is all about approachable nutrition.

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Comments

As a registered dietitian, I love this post – you explained it very well and included scientific facts rather than just proclaiming it to be the perfect sweetener. From all the research I’ve read, GRAS is not good enough for me, especially while pregnant. Personally it also gave me migraines when I used it in the past! 🙂 Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post.

Thanks Claire! When I did my MSc in nutrition I did my thesis work on artificial sweeteners and the risk of developing metabolic syndrome or type II diabetes, and stevia came up quite a few times when I was doing research on possible mechanisms to explain this relationship. So this subject is near and dear to my heart! GRAS isn’t good enough for me either, and it kind of blows my mind that the FDA has it as a category. Glad you enjoyed the post!

I love this article! And then I discovered it was written by one of my favorite bloggers I just discovered! Great job on just reporting the facts and not the hype! I completely agree, Stevia is not a miracle sugar replacement. Personally I would use it in small amounts but I can’t stand the flavor. The flavor is worse than aspartame (in my opinion).

Thanks Heather! Such kind words 🙂 To be honest, I’ve never tried stevia as it’s just out of my comfort zone, but if it’s worse than aspartame the flavour must be pretty dang bad!

This is such great information. Thank you for taking the time to research this and put it all together! I use stevia in my coffee in the morning, and for now am okay with it, but I would rather choose knowing the facts rather than blindly feed myself something I know nothing about! Really, thank you, I never knew half of these things!

Glad I could help! I think you’re right – the main thing is to really know what we’re eating and make informed decisions about whether or not we want to use something. Personally I’m not comfortable with stevia, but many others aren’t comfortable with sugar. Knowledge is power!

Thank you for your post. I love stevia in my tea and have been using drops for years. Even before it was available as “stevia.” Stevia ruins the taste of coffee–give me honey or maple syrup any day in coffee. Never use it in baking.
My current drops, 365 brand, of course are processed but with no additives and 11% alcohol!. I recently read the label on a “skinny” brand and was shocked to read the list of additives.
I do have a sweet tooth–that rarely is fed processed sugar. You bring up a good point re: is stevia stimulating our appetite for sweets, the same as other sugars.

I think there can be a lot of variation from brand to brand, so it’s definitely wise to be a good label reader! But yes, at the end of the day is it a solution or is it just feeding our appetite for sweet things?

I believe that whole leaf stevia has been approved in some places as a supplement, so it’s definitely possible to get your hands on it. Good to know for Canadian readers. Whole leaf or not, stevia is still out of my comfort zone due to the cephilac phase response that its sweetness triggers. I’d much prefer the real thing, in moderation.

Great info. I use stevia extract to balance out the flavor in desserts where I’ve used erythritol (my preferred sweetener). I know not everyone is comfortable with its use yet either, but I fall into the camp that modest amounts of it are likely okay, much like stevia (and I have a cane sugar food sensitivity). The key, though, as you mention is that people embrace that no matter what type of sweetener they use — artificial or otherwise — the goal should be overall to enjoy a much “less sweet” way of eating.

Thanks Regan! I think that with any of these sweeteners (xylitol, erythritol, stevia, etc) that moderate use is likely fine. I’ve worked with someone previously who had hereditary fructose intolerance, and for her I suggested small amounts of stevia – luckily she didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, so never used excessive amounts. Non-nutritive sweeteners are outside of my personal comfort zone (I did a deep dive into that subject during my MSc research), but that’s a personal choice. And yes, whether you’re using stevia, aspartame, or straight up sugar, the overall goal should be eating less sweet. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Hi Katie. This is a great article and I”m sharing it widely as it is something that people are very confused about and it is good to get your take on it. I have maybe four drops a day of SweetLeaf at the most, just to take the edge off my daily cold matcha tea (a largish glass). I don’t however recommend it, for the reasons that you state. I don’t have a sweet tooth so I am not worried about having too much of it, or it aiding and abetting my intake of sweet foods (which is pretty non-existent). I think that there is still so much more to know about stevia, but like past so-called safe sweeteners, it is most likely too good to be true. I tend to sweeten minimally with date syrup, maple syrup and honey. But those few drops of stevia don’t flavour my tea the ways these syrups do so I am hoping that they are okay used this way.

Hi Kellie! Thanks for your comments on this post. It’s such a complex topic, isn’t it? I think many have been hailing stevia as the holy grail of sweeteners, but as you said, we just don’t know enough yet. And years from now if we find out that excess stevia is just as damaging as excess sugar, I won’t be surprised. I’m sure as with all things, moderate use such as in your tea will turn out to be ok.

Okay, now I understand why you’ve commented on some of my posts about not using Stevia. This post is truly enlightening, and a bit scary, because Alex loves using Stevia. I just sent this to her, hopefully she’ll rethink using it. This is the same reason I tell people not to drink diet soda or eat artificially sweetened foods, it trick your mind into craving more sugar. Thanks Katie!!

Not using stevia is a personal choice, and my intent with this post is certainly not to scare anyone away from it. I do think that we just don’t know enough yet to be using it in large amounts, and as I’ve mentioned previously, that cephilac phase response triggered by sweet taste in the mouth is enough to steer me away (plus I did a deep dive into this topic when working on my MSc thesis and I just know way too much). Physiologically I don’t think stevia is much different than an artificial sweetener, and yes, I think it sets our sweet expectations far too high. I’d rather have less of the real stuff, personally.

I was very overweight 20 years ago at 330lbs mostly from crash dieting and then binge eating. I had chronic Candida also from long term use of antibiotics.. When I lost my excess weight I stayed away from all sugars.. when Stevia became available I began using a small amount on my porridge. Within two weeks I had intestinal bloating, my ears itched and eyes itched, sure signs for me that my Candida was flourishing again.. only happens when I have too much sugar in my diet. So I would agree with the theory that it may disrupt the gut bacteria and certainly when I stopped the Stevia the symptoms subsided again over the next couple of weeks but I still needed to take in probiotics to restore the balance again.. Most of the obese clients that I have worked with in the last 18 years as a Nutritional Therapist also have had the same experience with artificial sweeteners.

Thanks for commenting, Sally! Your experience is really interesting, both personally and with your clients. It’s incredible how something like this can throw our systems out of whack. Overall we need to learn to eat foods that taste real, not sweetened to the end of the earth!

This confirms everything I thought about stevia. I’ll stick to limiting my sugar intake. Also I really don’t like the taste of any artificial sweetener. Thanks for the clear and balanced article.

Great post! As others have said, I think you explained stevia really well and in an easy to understand way. My favorite sweetener is definitely honey, but I also use stevia sometimes in my tea and smoothies. I agree that it’s definitely safe to say that it’s better for you than artificial sweeteners, but like you also said, there hasn’t been enough research done to truly know the effect that consuming it has on our bodies.

Well researched post Katie! I agree with you that Stevia is a healthy, safe and natural sweetener which should be used in moderation. It’s actually a great alternative for sugar(diabetic) patients and people with Obesity as well. Also its demand is increasing from female consumers because in baking, recipes and cooking stevia liquid and powder both are generally used.

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