We’ve put stevia on trial and have heard all the evidence both for and against it. Here’s our final ruling on the safety of stevia.
There has been a rather sudden outcry against stevia. I’ve seen it on comments on social media and in blog posts.
I’ve decided to share just a few examples of what has been cropping up:
“Stevia is toxic.”
“Stevia is unhealthy.”
“Stevia is artificial.”
“I won’t use a product that has stevia.”
“How can something with stevia be natural?”
None of these are true or they are grossly confused, so I thought I’d look into why people might be thinking this way about a no-calorie sweetener that is natural and well-proven to be safe.
Claims Against Stevia:
It does end up on the shelf next to a host of artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, acesulfame potassium, erythritol, sucralose, saccharin, and xylitol, but this doesn’t make stevia the same thing. Stevia may be a no/low calorie sweetener, but it is not artificial. Maybe the confusion comes from soft drinks beginning to use this plant extract in place of aspartame. It is replacing aspartame. It is not aspartame.
Stevia has an aftertaste that can be sharp, bitter, or overly sweet when compared to sugar. This is because it is not sugar. Different people tend to experience this aftertaste to different degrees, and it also depends on the purity of the extract, but an aftertaste is not an indication of artificiality.
Stevia is related to ragweed, so an allergic reaction is a possibility, but it is rare. As a refined extract, stevia is unlikely to trigger allergies even in people with ragweed allergies, especially since it is used in such minute amounts due to its intense sweetness. The whole ground leaf is more likely to cause some allergic reactions. If you have a ragweed allergy, you may want to avoid stevia until you are certain you will have no reaction.
Stevia is often paired with less healthy ingredients and even artificial sweeteners. Many of the commercial stevia packets and drops available have erythritol, xylitol, dextrose, maltodextrin, and even sugar. Yes, these aren’t great, but they do not change the fact that pure stevia is a natural sweetener. You can find stevia without these and many products that contain stevia don’t use them either. Sunwarrior uses pure organic stevia extract in their proteins and nutritional shakes.
The theory is that since stevia tastes sweet, it tells the body to prepare for sugar by releasing insulin, which encourages cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. This glucose isn’t replaced because we do not digest the stevia, which results in a hypoglycemic crash. This is partially true. There is some evidence that tasting sweet things can spur a release of insulin from the pancreas in anticipation of the sugars, but this is not the same type of insulin release you get when blood sugar levels start rising. Stevia also does tend to lower blood sugar to a small degree by slowing the absorption of glucose in the intestines. Stevia affects people differently, so you need to gauge your sensitivity to it yourself. There is little risk of hypoglycemia in healthy individuals. The main risk comes when a diabetic injects more insulin than needed before a meal with stevia. As their body absorbs glucose slower than normal, this excess insulin drops blood sugar levels lower than expected.
Hypoglycemia triggers a release of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which then increase blood sugar. Frequent release of stress hormones taxes the adrenal glands, suppresses immune function, increases inflammation, and hinders thyroid function. This has already been covered above. Hypoglycemia is a rare side effect, mainly with insulin users, and not a daily occurrence for most stevia consumers.
This myth comes back to one 1968 study that has since been debunked, but that doesn’t stop people from sharing it.
Stevia has a similar structure to two plant hormones, but it has not been shown to alter or affect hormones in humans. The hormones in question are also found in many other plants and supplements, including gingko biloba. Stevia is also used in miniscule amounts and not easily metabolized, so there is little concern. I came across one blogger advocating raw honey over stevia due to the hormone issues of stevia. I laughed. Honey contains both insect and plant hormones, especially raw honey. Almost every plant you eat has plant hormones in it. It’s just the nature of food.
Mutagenic and Cancer Causing
Increases Sugar Cravings
There have been several studies that linked artificial sweeteners to slight weight gain when compared to a placebo (averaging around 2 pounds difference after a year). There have been no studies that have done the same with stevia. Sweet foods do tend to increase appetite, which anyone with common sense knows as they drool over their favorite dessert. Like most weight control, it really comes down to eating healthy, sticking to moderation, and staying active.
Killing Probiotics & Good Bacteria
There has only been one study that showed an inhibitory effect on only one strain of probiotics, lactobacillus reuteri. The authors of the study said the inhibitory effect was “slight”, only slowing the growth of the culture. This was not an in vivo study. Other in vivo studies have shown no impact on the gut micro biomes of humans.
Migraines are a pretty common side effect of artificial sweeteners. Some people report having migraines with stevia too, but they should check labels to see if the stevia they are using also contains an artificial sweetener. There is some chance a migraine is a symptom of a stevia allergy.
Processing with Solvents
Most stevia is processed using water and alcohol. Some are employing carbon dioxide or ultrasound to squeeze as much out of each leaf. There still are some companies that use solvents that are supposed to cook off during the process, but these are slowly going away as consumers demand cleaner processes. Keep demanding and choosing companies that provide organic stevia without additives, like Sunwarrior. These will not contain inorganic solvents.
Benefits of Stevia:
As a no calorie sweetener, stevia lets you consume foods with less sugar, protein powders, and low calorie meal replacements as part of your weight loss or weight maintenance routine. Stevia alone isn’t a weight loss option, but it can make it easier to enjoy sweet foods without indulging as often.
Stevia’s ability to slow glucose absorption and possibly increase insulin sensitivity makes it a great addition to the diets of anyone with diabetes. It should be used in moderation and with care, especially when using insulin injections.
Stevia has antioxidant properties, scavenging free radicals that can damage DNA.
Despite being related to ragweed, allergic reactions to stevia are rare, making it an excellent sweetener for those who suffer allergies, especially as it is often included in foods and supplements that are allergy friendly.
Stevia has not been modified in any way at the moment.
Organic stevia avoids inorganic pesticides, compounds, and additives.
Cholesterol & Plaque
Stevia may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol as an antioxidant. It may protect cholesterol from oxidation and reduce plaque buildup in arteries.
Stevia doesn’t stop there. It has shown anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immune boosting effects.
Keep using stevia, but always in moderation. You can also grow it yourself and create extracts by steeping dried leaves in organic vodka. That way you know exactly what goes into it.