Stevia: What's All the Hype About?

I frequently teach workshops on a variety of nutrition topics. No matter what topic I am discussing, I usually get a question about stevia. It is a hot nutrition topic and people are curious if the hype is true: is this natural sweetener as good as we are told?

Let’s start with some background about stevia. Stevia is an herb that dates back hundreds of years. It is has been used as a sweetener in Japan for decades, and Paraguay for centuries; however, it only recently gained popularity in the United States. It is revered for being up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, yet does not cause as dramatic blood sugar swings as refined white sugar. For those who are looking to control their weight, stevia is a great option since it contains no calories.

In the United States, the FDA did not allow stevia to be sold as a food additive until 2008. Before then if you wanted to buy stevia you had to go to the supplement section in a health food store. Randomly (or not) this was when Cargill introduced their stevia product, Truvia, to be sold for mass consumption. There is an important distinction between many of the stevia products being sold now, not just Truvia. The FDA approved an extract of one ingredient of the stevia leaf called rebaudioside A (rep A), which requires a completely different process to obtain than the use of the whole stevia leaf.

Anyone who has read my previous blogs knows the benefits of eating whole, unprocessed foods (brown rice) versus one processed, refined part of the food (white rice). With stevia, we are talking about the same thing: processing the plant to extract one small portion of the leaf versus the entire whole leaf of the stevia plant. In fact, it takes close to 40 steps to extract rebaudioside A from the entire leaf as well as the chemicals acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol to complete the process.

Besides rep A, other ingredients often included in stevia products include dextrose, erythritol and “natural ingredients”. Dextrose and erythritol are highly processed sweeteners made from genetically modified corn. Methanol, another toxic chemical, is also often used in the manufacturing process.

Discouraged? Have no fear. As is often the case, you have to be a detective in the grocery store and look closely at the ingredient list. The stevia you purchase should have one ingredient and one ingredient only: whole leaf stevia. If you see anything other than “whole leaf stevia” return the product to the shelf immediately!

One of the most important questions in my mind about stevia is safety. I have always highly discouraged my clients from including artificial sweeteners (another zero calorie sugar alternative) in their diet due to their toxicity. Is whole leaf stevia a safer choice? Personally I do not consume stevia because it has a metallic, bitter aftertaste to me. If I did use it, I would tread cautiously. As of now, the research is mostly positive about stevia. Some of the reported benefits include: possible positive effects on triglycerides, cholesterol and obesity, anti-inflammatory effect, and it may lower blood pressure. However, animal studies have linked stevia to “interference of carbohydrate absorption, metabolism disruption, reduced sperm production and conversion to mutagenic compounds.” Also, there has been some concern about minor GI effects, headaches and dizziness. I do wonder if they are using whole leaf stevia extracts during these studies or rep A? Another important question I always urge people to ponder is who is conducting these studies. Are the positive studies funded by Cargill or Pepsi, all who have a vested interest now in promoting the health benefits of stevia? Are there any studies conducted by an objective, neutral party?

As always when it comes to your health, you have to do your homework and be your own advocate. Always consume any sweetener in moderation and listen to your gut instinct. If you want recommendations on what I think are healthy alternatives to sugar, read this blog post I wrote recently.

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