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:
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.
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.
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.
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.