Is Stevia Good or Bad for You?
We are all told that sugar in excess is not healthy for you and eating too much sugar can do some serious harm to your health, both physically and mentally. In a way to create a healthier lifestyle and alternative, many people have turned to creating new products that act as sugar substitutes. While some are full of chemicals or processed ingredients, other natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup contain high levels of fructose that still fall close to the levels found in manufactured white sugars. One sweetener that often gets lost in the mix is stevia - and this is our inside little guide into this new natural sweetener craze.
What Is Stevia?
Stevia, also known more scientifically as Stevia Rebaudiana, is a plant that originates from the chrysanthemum family - a member of the subgroup of plants known as the Asteraceae family (ragweed family). They are often found in South America but now are being grown and cultivated all over the world. There is a big difference, however, from the stevia that is grown naturally versus the stevia that is often found in stores and sold as sweetener products.
The natural stevia plant is naturally sweet, considered to be at least 100 to 200 times sweeter than that of processed manufactured white sugar. What is so amazing about stevia is that it does not raise or disrupt one's blood sugar levels like other white sugars and sweeteners do. Because of its incredible properties, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes - besides just being a sweetener - for centuries all over the world before it gained the popularity it has today.
Unfortunately, while the naturally-occurring and grown stevia plant is often used for sweeteners and sugar alternatives, many manufactured forms of stevia found in supermarkets and other health food stores are forms of stevia that are often processed and powdered. In fact, the many popular powdered stevia sweeteners that are sold go through dozens of steps during processing from bleaching to chemical alteration. For example, Stevia in the Raw and Truvia are two very popular forms of processed stevia sweeteners, but are two of the most heavily processed during manufacturing.
The sweeteners in stevia that make it naturally sweet are known as Stevioside and Rebaudioside A. Rebaudioside A is often extracted and used in manufactured stevia powders and sweeteners, but it is not usually the only ingredient. In fact, most stevia sweeteners on the market contain added erythritol from corn, dextrose or other artificial sweeteners. The Stevioside often found in the plant only makes up at least 10% of the sweetness in stevia - it often has an unusually bitter taste that many people tend to dislike. Stevioside is often said to contain most of the beneficial properties that stevia has, such as maintaining blood sugar levels if you have diabetes.
To make the sugars, during processing, the leaves are often soaked in water and then pressed through a filter with alcohol to extract the Rebaudioside A. Later with the process, the extract gets dried, crystalized, and combined with other sweeteners or fillers to be manufactured and packaged for commercial use. If green stevia leaves are being used, it is often found to be less processed, and is often being dried and ground for use. Although the green leaf product is typically considered the purest form, it’s not as thoroughly studied as pure extracts and Rebaudioside A - with research still lacking or being done.
Is Stevia Safe To Consume?
The compound that is extracted from Rebaudioside A , Steviol glycosides, according to the Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) is recognized as being safe for consumption - meaning that they can be used for food products or for other manufacturing practices within the United States. When it comes to full-leaf stevia or other raw stevia extracts, the Food and Drug Administration still has yet to approve their safety and are currently being investigated for food products.
In truly determining the safety of stevia, it also depends on the type of stevia one is using. For example, stevia as the green plant that you can grow in your backyard or find as dried leaf or tincture form is considered safe and has even been studied and found to have health benefits. Powdered and bleached stevia, though FDA approved, has not been studied and undergoes an extensive chemical process to reach its final white powdered form.
What Are The Health Benefits of Stevia?
When it comes to stevia, there are many health benefits that do actually come from consuming the plant. For example, stevia is often considered to be a nonnutritive sweetener - meaning that the stevia plant has almost no calories. If you’re trying to lose weight or maintain a healthier lifestyle, this aspect may be appealing. However, there is little research to back up whether this may be true or not, and often remains inconclusive. The impact of nonnutritive sweetener on an individual’s health may depend on the amount that is consumed, as well as the time of day it’s consumed.
If you do have diabetes, however, the stevia plant may help keep your blood sugar levels in check and maintain their balance. In a study done in 2010 by Anton, S. D., Martin, C. K., Han, H., Coulon, S., Cefalu, W. T., Geiselman, P., & Williamson, D. A. for Appetite and published on PubMed, a sample of 19 healthy, lean participants and 12 obese participants found that stevia significantly lowered insulin and glucose levels. It also left study participants satisfied and full after eating, despite the lower calorie intake.
In another study performed in 2009, it was also found that the stevia leaf powder can help lower cholesterol. Participants within the study were found to consume 20 milliliters of stevia extract daily for one month. The study found stevia lowered total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides with no negative side effects.
Does Stevia Have Any Side-Effects?
When it comes to stevia, there are some negative side-effects that are still being investigated. There are concerns that raw stevia herbs can be harmful to one's kidneys, reproductive system, and cardiovascular system. It may also drop blood pressure to low, or even interact with medication that helps to balance blood sugar levels. With non-nutritive sweeteners as well, there was a 2019 study done that had found that they can disrupt intestinal flora. The study also had found that non-nutritive sweeteners such as stevia may also induce glucose intolerance and metabolic disorder. For the most part, however, the true downside that people often have with stevia comes from its taste.
The bottom-line, stevia that is made from Rebaudioside A are generally considered to be safe for consumption - even when pregnant or if you have diabetes. These products rarely cause any side effects, but more research is being conducted to make sure there is conclusive research.