Do the green leaf and the word “natural” on the box of stevia at the supermarket make you wonder if Stevia should be on your shelf? Is it any better than aspartame or sucralose? Are you picking up a pack of gum, a bottle of tea or a container of soy sauce and wondering what’s the deal with finding stevia in the ingredient list?
You’re not alone. Stevia is deemed GRAS (generally regarded as safe). It is in the company of things like annatto, carrageenan and chlorine in our food supply. In other words, GRAS doesn’t necessarily mean much. Uber-reputable sources are giving it the nod. But, as someone skeptical of any kind of “sweet” I look at it very closely.
Let’s break this down a bit.
Stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has zero calories and zero glycemic index. It also comes from a plant. I know what you are thinking: “Yippee! sweet deliciousness with no calories!” I hear you. We do know however, that your taste buds taste the sweetness and when no calories are linked to the bite in your mouth, hormones may still be stimulated.
Your mouth tastes sweet and assumes calories are supposed to follow. You’re supposed to get those calories in your belly and digestive hormones are supposed to kick into place. When no calories come, your body sends signals to your brain, saying, “What’s the deal?!” It makes sense to me that there would be some confusion with what your brain thinks is going on and what actually happens in your stomach.
This is where my relationship with stevia used to end. Keep reading.
If there is one publication I encourage my clients and colleagues to subscribe to, it is the Nutrition Action Healthletter, put out by CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest). They take the most important nutrition issues of the day and attack them from scientific, political, and environmental angles to get to a succinct bottom line.
They reviewed artificial sweeteners and reminded me that in the 90s, the FDA rejected stevia because of the “potential impact on blood sugar, sperm count, kidney function, and cardiovascular systems.” But they did give it a safe rating. Why?
Even though a couple studies (using extremely high doses) have linked stevia to changes in DNA, studies didn’t show an increased risk of cancer, fertility problems, or offspring with disabilities. On the flip side, studies have shown that one of the sweet compounds in stevia may lower blood pressure in people with elevated blood pressure. (Note: Large doses were used during these studies.) Other studies have linked stevia to a reduction in blood sugar and potential glycemic control in people with diabetes. Other studies have shown stevia’s possible anti-inflammatory benefits.
So, there are worse things in our pantry boxes than stevia, and we could go through the hundreds of them one by one, but this one deserves extra attention because it is so at the forefront these days, and people think it is both healthy and natural.
My bottom line is that refined sugar has absolutely no nutritional value and may cause inflammation, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Yet, it is not realistic for most people to take “sweets” completely out of their diet, right? If you can control the very small amount of refined sugar in your diet, you may be fine with keeping it in. For others, stevia is an alternative.
The takeaway is that you shouldn’t add it in because, “Oh hey, it’s healthy.” Rather, it may work for your lifestyle as a better alternative to refined sugar and other synthetic artificial sweeteners, due to it being zero calories and having zero glycemic index. In either case, you don’t want to be pouring packets into your mouth.
Of course, the best way to consume stevia is by growing and eating from your garden (yeah, people are doing this!), or you can order the leaves online.