In the search for calorie-free and all-natural sweeteners, stevia has risen to the surface in the last few years as an alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. But many questions still remain about stevia: what exactly is it, is it a safe alternative as a sweetener, will it aid in weight loss, and how does it affect our health?
What Is Stevia?
Stevia in its natural form is an herb plant, in the same family as sunflowers, and native to Paraguay and Brazil. Its leaves have been used for centuries by different cultures in South America as a sweetener. The extracts of the stevia plant are calorie-free and can taste up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Stevia was first marketed in the US as a dietary supplement, and its refined extract rebiana was only recently approved by the FDA as a sweetener.
So If It’s a Plant, It Must Be Safe, Right?
Here’s where things get tricky. Stevia is available in many different forms, from liquid extract to the commercial white powders. As with many good things, the food industry took it and monster-processed it, making it virtually unrecognizable from its original form. If you want to see for yourself, take a look here at Coca Cola’s 42 step patent for processing stevia to make Truvia. The resulting extract, called rebaudioside A (Reb-A) or rebiana, is added to ingredients like erythritol, isomaltulose, cellulose powder, maltodextrin, dextrose, and natural flavors (what does that even mean?) to increase shelf life and thus, commercial products like Truvia or PureVia are born. They are then marketed as “natural” sweeteners, but how natural does any of this process seem to you?
There are other ways to use stevia to sweeten. The powder form that is green actually somewhat resembles its original version. Liquid stevia is also available, although some of these liquid products are using the super-refined version of stevia mentioned above instead of the actual plant.
Don’t make your decision about sweetening with stevia based solely on the fact that its original form is a plant. After all, cocaine comes from a refined plant. First, we need more information about how the plant is transformed into the product used, and the effects on the body and overall health.
What Does Research Say?
Because it is fairly new in the US, not much definitive research is available. We know that the plant has been used for centuries in some areas, and Japan has been using it for over 30 years with seemingly no harmful effects. However, the Japanese consume it in small quantities, and it is hard to tell yet if using it in large quantities, as Americans tend to do, will have toxic effects. Some have reported mild side effects including nausea, cramping, allergic reaction (particularly in those with a ragweed allergy), and interactions with some hypertension and diabetes medications. Because of the lack of research, it is also recommended that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding not consume stevia.
But could stevia actually have positive effects on health? Some studies have shown that stevia may have anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immunomodulatory actions , , , . Historically, stevia has even been used to treat diabetics, as it seems to increase insulin sensitivity. Still, much research still needs to be done, especially on more than moderate amounts of stevia intake. Now that it has been used to sweeten sodas and other popular products, we can expect the general public to consume higher amounts than have been studied.
Will Stevia Help Me Lose Weight?
Because stevia has virtually no calories, it will not add to your daily calorie load the way sugar would, so if you’re eating a lot of sugar, it may help you to cut calories. However, real sugar (like the sugar found in raw honey and fruit) tells your brain that you have had enough because the calories activate that full signal. Without those calories, your brain will recognize the sweet flavor but continue waiting for the calories , .
Studies have shown that calorie-free sweeteners may actually cause us to overeat in this way by making us crave more sweets and carbohydrates. Artificial sweeteners can also cause leptin resistance, which creates an increase in stored visceral fat (belly fat, the dangerous kind linked to metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and diabetes) because the body has no idea what to do with it , . Does stevia have these same problems? The jury is still out on that. Our philosophy is that weight loss should not be accomplished at the expense of your overall health.
So Should I Use Stevia as a Sweetener?
Well, that is for you to decide. Personally, I’ll stick to raw honey and fruit until more is learned.
If you are going to use stevia, first of all, keep in mind that moderation is best – no more than 1 or 2 servings per day to be safe. Secondly, understand that as with all foods, the simpler the form, the better. From our perspective, stevia can be broken down into four levels of processing:
- Leaf, dried leaf, or powdered (green) leaf – The simplest form of stevia, used by native South Americans for centuries to sweeten teas. This seems to be the safest bet in choosing stevia to sweeten. Here’s a stevia powder that we recommend.
- Liquid extract, homemade – you can extract your own liquid stevia in your kitchen using dried stevia leaves and vodka.
- Extract, bought commercially – you won’t be guaranteed to get the unrefined version of stevia this way, and there’s really no way to know how it was processed without an explanation by the manufacturer. However, here is an extract that’s made without additives or fillers.
- Commercial stevia, found in products like Truvia or used to sweeten sodas, etc. - this highly refined stevia is not only a processed additive, but you can’t control the amount added to your product. Not to mention, these products usually come hand in hand with shelf life-extending chemicals and additives. Safest to avoid these.
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