Stevia: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Posted By on Feb 10, 2014 | 29 comments


Stevia. Though it has gone by almost unnoticed by the general public for years, it's current status as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA has spearheaded the natural zero-calorie sweetener to the mainstream. Stevia is purported to be a safe,  all-natural sweetening agent without the bloodsugar-spiking effects of sugars.

Formerly, such zero-cal bloodsugar-safe descriptions were reserved for lab-made ingredients  and sugar alcohols (like Aspartame, Saccharin, and Xylitol to name a few). But many of these lab-made artificial sweeteners have worse side effects than sugar, leaving many consumers (particularly diabetics), wanting something safer and natural. Enter Stevia, and the scramble for health and beverage companies alike to grab a piece of the stevia-sweetened pie.

Yet, there's still some controversy surrounding Stevia. And, as many of my readers from the Maltodextrin post have realized, some companies are still not being that ethical when advertising their stevia product. So here's the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on stevia.

First the Facts:

What is stevia, first of all? Stevia is a green, leafy plant that hails from South America (primarily Paraguay & Brazil) that can grow as high as 4 feet tall. Its leaves is where the glory is, containing high amounts of Rebaudioside A (aka Reb A or Rebiana). Reb A is 300-450 times sweeter than sugar and is known for a clean flavor, though some hate the after taste.

The FDA finally moved the plant to GRAS status in late 2008, making stevia available to be used in food/beverages and as a sweetener in the U.S. instead of just as a dietary supplement. Outside the states, stevia was already used as a sweetener in South America and even in Japan for years. So why did the US drag it's feet for stevia to be used in food and beverages? Before we get to the bad, let's look at the good side of stevia:

The Good:

Stevia really does what it's proponents claim: it naturally sweetens food, beverages, and supplements without adding calories. It also doesn't have the super adverse side effects that other lab-made sweeteners have, like Aspartame in particular.

Used in very small amounts in some ethically and naturally derived products like Shakeology and Quest Bars, stevia gets my vote as the go-to way to lightly sweeten supplements and nutritional products when you don't want extra sugar.

The Bad:

As the old adage goes, too much of a good thing can be bad, unless you're talking about Barry White! With stevia, however, the saying applies. Though no human studies have been conducted, some tests on rats proved to be a warning sign that stevia may also cause problems if over-consumed. The watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, shares the findings:

Just because a substance is natural, does not mean that it is safe. In the 1990s, the U.S. FDA rejected stevia for use as a food ingredient. Likewise, Canada did not approve stevia, and a European Community scientific panel declared that stevia was unacceptable for use in food. High dosages fed to rats reduced sperm production and increased cell proliferation in their testicles, which could cause infertility or other problems. Pregnant hamsters that had been fed large amounts of a derivative of stevioside called steviol had fewer and smaller offspring. In the laboratory, steviol can be converted into a mutagenic compound, which may promote cancer by causing mutations in the cells' DNA. CSPINET

Until further research is done, it would be best to not over consume on stevia. Fortunately, stevia isn't used in large quantities with many supplements, beverages, and foods. However, if you use stevia as a sweetener yourself, remember not to overdo it, even with the zero-calorie factor.

Another interesting thing some report on stevia and other zero-cal sweeteners is the notion that they may still cause a hypoglycemic effect by tricking your body that it's getting a large amount of sugar when it's really not. You can find out more here. However, no study was cited about this effect in the article, so it looks like an unfounded theory to me until I see some hard evidence.

The Ugly:

When it comes to sweetener brands that use stevia, don't be fooled that stevia is the only thing in the package.  Most of the stevia sweeteners you find will have other ingredients, such as dextrose, maltodextrin, xylitol, and erithrytol.

Here's a shorthand list:

  • Stevia in the Raw: there's nothing "Raw" about it—also has dextrose or maltodextrin, both of which are corn-derived carbs that can spike blood sugar, not to mention the likelihood of making it a GMO product.
  • Pure Via: also has dextrose and cellulose powder. Again, the main concern here is the dextrose.
  • Nature's Way and Truvia: both brands have erythritol as well. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that has 0.2 calories per gram. It doesn't affect blood sugar levels, and, unlike other sugar alcohols, it doesn't upset the stomach. NOTE: Truvia has also used Xylitol instead of Erythritol, which isn't a good thing.
  • Wholesome Sweeteners, Organic Stevia: also has organic agave inulin. Unlike regular agave nectar, agave inulin apparently does not affect blood sugar (as brands that sell it advertise at least).

Best bet: When choosing a sweetener, always read your ingredients first and foremost. with the above examples, it's best to avoid the top two. Nature's Way, Truvia, and Wholesome Sweeteners at least add higher quality ingredients to their stevia products that don't affect blood sugar.

Verdict:

Until there's more specific research about "how much is too much" when it comes to stevia, I am cautiously optimistic enough to use it sparingly with some truthful brands like Nature's Way, Shakeology, and Quest Bar. When it comes to sweetening your tea or coffee though, I'm a bigger fan of raw honey.

Like this post? Have more info on Stevia? Let me know in the comments below. Don't forget to check out my other "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" posts.

Jed Olson (24 Posts)

Jed is a fitness and travel enthusiast. A beachbody coach and A.C.E. Certified Personal Trainer, Jed has a passion for staying healthy amidst a busy lifestyle. Having travelled to over 50 countries, he knows how rough travel can be on the body and has spent considerable time studying ways to "travel-proof" the body.


29 Comments

  1. reys_exim@yahoo.com'

    Hi Jed.Thanks for the very informative material. In the Philippines stevia is just starting to be known. The manufacturer claims it is best for juices, beverages, baked products and can be substituted in any recipe using sugar. I find it misleading because the process they manufacture is spray drying which uses maltodextrin. Also, the sour after taste remains when used in baked products and other recipes. The label also states maltodextrin before stevia, meaning that there are more malto than stevia.

    Yes, people must read the labels before buying any food product.

    Post a Reply
    • Absolutely Oji. It’s sad that some brands will prop up stevia in their product because of it’s zero-cal factor, but fail to mention there’s more maltodextrin in it than the stevia!

      Post a Reply
      • cmbun@yahoo.com'

        I’d like to clear up some misinformation in your article. CSPI is referring to the FDA rejecting the GRAS application, in the 90’s, for the whole Stevia leaf due to inadequate study. Years later, FDA approved the Steviol glycosides (what many now sell as Stevia – it is really Stevia leaf extract). CSPI notes that there were a couple of negative studies (there are for most every food you can think of ) but they’ve changed their position on Stevia (based on subsequent study) and consider it safe in moderate usage. If anything, CSPI is tougher on sugar than they are on Stevia leaf extract or maltodextrin. See site below:
        https://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm#stevia

        Please also note that the Japanese have been using Stevia as a sweetener for decades and report no ill effects.

        As for packets containing more maltodextrin (essentially partially digested starch – fructose chains shorter than starch but longer than simple fructose) than Steviol glycosides: there is good reason. With Stevia averaging 400x the sweetness of sugar, it is nearly impossible to measure a serving (if buying in a box) or to distribute that serving evenly throughout your food (if using a packet) . The maltodextrin adds “bulk” so that one can scoop more accurately or add a packet that contains more than a few grains of sweetener.

        I’m a food scientist but I don’t work for a sweetener company nor do I work for a company which uses Stevia leaf extract in any products. I personally think it tastes terrible – however, i think it is important to set the record straight for those seeking a safe, natural, high potency sweetener

        Post a Reply
        • Thanks for the input Marie, though I do believe i mentioned most of what you mention in the article. 1) yes, I did mention CSPI considers moderate amounts of Stevia safe, I was citing them on the bad effects of over-consuming, which is unfortunately left vague. 2) I also mention the Japanese (and many South American countries) have used it for years 3) Yes, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a whole packet of Stevia because of the sweetness, but, as I already mentioned in the article, there are better fillers than maltodextrin in stevia products and I cite them. It seems apparent that you did not give the article a thorough reading before this comment, I would suggest doing so in the future.

          Post a Reply
          • cmbun@yahoo.com'

            you did not attribute your comments about moderate consumption to CSPI – you wrote them as if they were your words. As for maltodextrin being a bad diluent for stevia – if you did your research more carefully, you’d learn that maltodextrin can be sourced from rice and tapioca- not just corn. I’m also not sure what makes inulin a better ingredient than erythritol or xylitol. Erythitol in particular is not metabolized by microorganisms – unlike inulin which is. While this makes inulin a good prebiotic – it also causes gastrointestinal distress for some. I’m sorry my knowledge makes you uncomfortable and defensive. I guess I’ll stick to those articles written by true scientists.

    • sufa@cableone.net'

      Is self grown Stevia the best usage of Stevie, which as you know, is green, as the leaf.
      Why when buying Stevie, is it white? Is that due to the maltodextrin, and perhaps more?
      I plant my own, organically and put it in a coffee grinder to pulverize it. Is that the best way to consume Stevia?
      Thanks much,
      Sue

      Post a Reply
    • pbelzer13@gmail.com'

      I’m working on going low carb vegan so honey is not an option in my tea ( which is one of the only things I do sweeten) do you think a few teaspoons a week would hurt me. I’m lactose intolerant and meat repulses me of late. And the only version of stevia I can afford is from Aldi. The first ingredient is maltodextrin but I only use a maybe 3 teaspoons a week.

      Post a Reply
  2. heatherzompa@gmail.com'

    Do you know if Stevia is safer when it is consumed in it’s natural state? I was thinking of growing a plant, and using the leaves in my tea.

    Post a Reply
    • Only 4% of Stevia Leaves contain Rebiana. Thus, having natural leaves in your tea would have less Rebiana than a few packs of Truvia. So yes, it would be less likely to be harmful than the concentrated stevia in sweeteners

      Post a Reply
      • cmbun@yahoo.com'

        Stevia Leaf is not GRAS for food. That’s why it is only sold as a supplement. It hasn’t been studied enough to be an allowed food additive though many people consume it without incident.

        Post a Reply
      • mlotis11@gmail.com'

        First, Jed, let me say how much I enjoy your even-handed, non-hysterical, non-theatrical approach to foods and additives. Caution and moderation — works just about always.
        I came to this site through the maltodextrine article, where I posted the very simple steps to growing, harvesting and using stevia. Unfortunately I omitted a requirement, and that would be that one needs to be a righteously organic gardener to grow your herbs, which means NO chemical pesticides (even if they claim to be safe) or fertilizers – organic manure and/or homemade compost only. Another point is that stevia grows to four feet only in tropical settings with 50+ inches of rain every year and no plant-killing frost. They might reach 2 feet here when flowering, but the leaves really should be harvested before the plant blooms, at 12-15″ tall.
        Hope this helps, and you’ll be seeing more of me.

        Post a Reply
  3. freelybe@gmail.com'

    Thanks so much, and the timing of your post was impeccable. It just occured to me recently that ‘Stevia in the Raw’ and maltodextrin generally might not be a great idea with coffee every day. Sure enough, you make a clear case that it’s not. Been debating about switching to raw honey – we have a couple of local folks that sell it, and now’s the time. Thanks again!

    Post a Reply
  4. nurianseijas@hotmail.com'

    How much is to much in your opinion. I use Stevia extract, of course the first ingredient is Maltodextrin. I use a tea spoon in my coffee every day.

    Post a Reply
    • If your talking about a powder, 1 tsp of straight up Maltodextrin is around 6g. At 4 cal per gram, that’s 24 calories from a carb with a high glycemic index. Now, Stevia is also in that teaspoon, so it’ll actually be less, but not much since stevia is a very potent sweetener. However, just 6 grams isn’t that much. In my opinion, if your avoiding high glycemic foods in other areas and you personally are not adversely affected by putting it in your tea, that amount shouldn’t be too much. Adding 3-4 teaspoons… then I’d start to worry. NOTICE: I am not a doctor. Everybody responds to foods differently, so be sure to check with a registered dietician or a doctor before making severe changes to your diet.

      Post a Reply
  5. a@a.com'

    Can you do a post on the good, the bad and the ugly of snake oil?

    Just eat proper, well grown, and well reared food.

    It’s not hard for goodness’ sake.

    Post a Reply
    • Not hard indeed! Haven’t heard of Snake Oil before. I’ll have to look into it.

      Post a Reply
  6. carilaw4him@yahoo.com'

    Thank you for informative articles. I recently began using Spring Valley Natural Stevia which Wal-Mart sells in the Vitamin isle. I also read your article on Maltodextrin then Stevia extract and that’s it. On the box is a list of things it doesn’t have and after reading your article I took a second look at the box. To my dislike I found a warning label not for anyone under 18 years old or pregnant or if you have a medical condition.
    So is there a good sweetener out there??? I guess I will look into honey I like it in my hot tea but never tried in my iced tea:-) Thanks again for the info

    Post a Reply
    • Glad you liked the article Cari. Just make sure the honey you get is locally sourced. Otherwise there’s not much of a guarantee the honey is not just Chinese high fructose corn syrup with honey flavoring

      Post a Reply
      • Seabreeezin@sbcglobal.net'

        One option that was overlooked is NOW brand Stevia Balance, which includes both Inulin (900 mg – FOS) and Chromium (50 mgs) without the other fillers you mention. It doesn’t have the bad after taste like other brands and comes in packets. Stevia is 130 mg, and even the supplement maker suggests not using more than 8 packets a day. So, this may give you an idea of how little to use.

        I also use a little raw, unfiltered, unprocessed with bee polin local honey in my herbal tea. However, only accompanied with fiber to help slow the digestive process of the sugars.

        My doctor turned me onto Monk Fruit, but like any of these … it’s hard to find a brand that isn’t laced with garbage. Jed, have you looked into this one yet?

        Post a Reply
        • I do like many of Now’s products but haven’t looked into their Stevia product. But it appears you found a winner!

          Post a Reply
    • mlotis11@gmail.com'

      I find I don’t need sugar in my iced tea if I brew it the old-fashioned way (boil water on the stove, and your tea bags, steep 10 minutes, remove tea, refrigerate. The trick to omitting sugar is to use two raspberry or blueberry tea bags in lieu of 2 of your basic tea bags.
      NOTE: To speed up the chilling process, I brew the tea in half as much water as called for, then after removing the tea bags I add a cup of plain room temp water (to keep the jug from cracking and dumping tea all over the place! ) and fill the jug with ice cubes,

      Post a Reply
  7. Jilltschneider@gmail.com'

    Any advise about SweetLeaf Natural Stevia Sweetener?
    It says, “non GMO” and under ingredients it only lists: Insulin soluble fiber,(USDA Certified organic SweetLeaf Stevia Extract”.

    Post a Reply
    • If those are the only ingredients, sounds like a winner to me.

      Post a Reply
  8. anne4faith@yahoo.com'

    I recently read an article you posted on artificial sweeteners and am trying to find it I am looking for a particular sweetner I can bake with thanks

    Post a Reply
  9. bdhealinghands@gmail.com'

    I found this post very helpful. Thanks Very much. Any updates on any of this please.

    Post a Reply
  10. mccracken.jill@gmail.com'

    Hi Jed,
    I have learned a lot from reading your blogs and really appreciate them. Thank you! My son is on the modified adkins/ketogenic diet to help manage his epilepsy. He is limited to 10 grams of carbs per day. I am trying to find an artificial sweetener I can use that has zero carbs so that I can use it in baked goods, smoothies, etc. I have been using stevia (liquid) but most recipes call for stevia and erythritol or xylitol. I have been told by his neurologist and dietician that we’re not sure how those two products work in relationship to having seizures. I was looking into Stevia in the Raw, which led me to your posts, and it sounds like maltodrextin would be awful for him. I am also looking into alternative sweeteners like saccharin and sucralose. I never thought I would be feeding my son these alternative sweeteners, but he has to be on this diet and I can’t get him off of sweets entirely (he is 9). Do you have recommendations about saccharin or sucralose? Sucralose is actually allowed on his diet, as is stevia, but I have been told by others that saccharin might actually be less harmful. Do you have any ideas about this? Thanks so much!

    Post a Reply
    • As long as your son’s doctor has no concerns, I would go with the sweeteners you mentioned and avoid maltodextrin. Check with your son’s doctor on saccharin as well. I normally recommend erythritol, but given that your medical professionals are unsure of its effects for your son’s condition, definitely avoid it.

      Post a Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Is Maltodextrin Bad for You? The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly | Fitness for Travel - […] “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” posts on different ingredients. My latest ones are on Stevia […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *