It’s safe to say that excess sugar consumption has become a scary worldwide issue. It seems like every time you check a nutrition label or an ingredients list, sugar or some version of it, is staring you square in the face.

If we could only eat less sugar, maybe we could nip preventable diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes in the bud and have healthier populations to take us to great places. If only there was a natural, healthy sweetener available for everyday consumption.

Oh hello, stevia.

Stevia first appeared in health stores, and then grocery stores, and slowly, but surely, started to convince healthy skeptics that we indeed had a natural, calorie free sweetener on our hands.

It seemed too good to be true.

So I believed the hype. I wanted to believe that this gift from the sweetener gods was finally here.

Until I started doing some research and discovered the shocking truth about stevia.

And you should learn it too.

What Is Stevia?

Stevia plants have been growing for centuries in the warm tropical climates of South America. There are over 200 different species of stevia plants, but those extracted from the species stevia rebaudiana contain Rebaudioside A, the sweetest component of the leaves that has very minimal aftertaste after processing.

As Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., M.P.H., R.D., writes for the American Council on Exercising: “Rebaudioside A acts chemically similar to sugar in onset, intensity and duration of sweetness”.

Most of the stevia on the market contains extracted Rebaudioside A and a mix of stevioside, the crystalline compound that makes stevia taste 100 to 300 times sweeter than normal cane sugar.

Even though the glycosides rebaudioside (or rebiana) and stevioside are sweeter than sugar, Irwin Goldman says that, “once consumed, the glycosides break down into steviol, which is simply excreted; and glucose, which is used by intestinal bacteria and does not go into the bloodstream”.

So basically, stevia has zero calories and zero effect on blood sugar because it never enters our bloodstream when we consume it.

The Japanese were the first to capitalize on this benefit and started to manufacture stevia commercially amidst the onset of research linking artificial sweeteners with cancer in the early 1970s. Japan still consumes more stevia than any other country, despite stevia’s introduction to the US in the 1980s.

This surprised me because the average American typically consumes about 130 pounds of sugar a year. Surely Americans would benefit the most from utilizing an ingredient that would get this number down from such a shocking level.

Stevia And The FDA

Stevia is not as popular as high fructose corn syrup because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still not on board with stevia.Whether backed by Big Sugar or reluctant about sugar alternatives in general, the FDA received an anonymous tip that stevia was unfit for consumption, so they labeled it as an ‘unsafe food additive’ in 1991. Similarly, the European Union banned stevia’s use in food until further research could prove its safety, but finally approved it in 2011.

It wasn’t until the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 forced the FDA to reconsider stevia. The FDA agreed to promote stevia as a dietary supplement, but not food additive.

In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) presented their studies about stevia’s safety based on long term research, which stressed that no adverse effects were ever found from consuming stevia.

You’d think this endorsement would be enough proof the FDA needed.

But think again.

Two years after the WHO studies were published, the FDA gave approval for Truvia and PureVia to be granted Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status. This means these commercially produced stevia extracts made by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo., respectively, were labeled GRAS before the actual plant was.

As of 2012, the FDA still holds that whole leaf, or crude stevia plants “have not been approved for use as a food additive” because of “reports that raise concerns about [the]…control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems”.

The FDA argued that these derivatives are not stevia, but “highly purified products” instead.

Wait a second.

So highly purified products are safer in the FDA’s eyes than an unrefined herb that grows right out of the ground and can be used as a natural sweetener as soon as it’s picked?

I had to learn more about this process turning plants into ‘safer’ products.

What’s In Commercial Stevia?

According to the patent on Truvia, it takes over 40 steps to produce this chemically derived product. Manufacturers use ethanol, methanol, acetone, and isopropanol to take this sweet leaf and turn it into tiny white crystals.Other companies mix erythritol in their stevia blends. Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar found in certain fruits. However, the erythritol being used in stevia is chemically manufactured, genetically modified corn subjected to long fermentation processes. Janine Grant at LiveStrong writes that the “downside” of poorly absorbing erythritol in our gastrointestinal tract is the “possible side effect of bloating and diarrhea”.

When checking ingredient labels, be careful of dextrose, another ingredient made from GMO corn that’s undergone complicated processes, and agave inulin, which is incredibly processed fiber from the agave plant.

How To Choose The Right Stevia

If you’re going to buy commercial stevia, make sure that whole leaf stevia is at the top of the ingredient list instead of stevia extracts. Always purchase products that are completely pure without questionable ingredients like natural flavors.Better yet, if you have a green thumb, you can actually grow your own stevia plants. Each leaf is still over 30 times sweeter than normal sugar. Throw a few fresh leaves in some green tea or grind some up to sweeten my fat melting drink every once in awhile.

FoodBabe has a great tutorial for making your very own stevia extract. By having stevia in liquid form, it will be easier to dissolve seamlessly in whatever you’re eating or drinking.

You’ll need 1 cup of washed stevia leaves and some organic vodka (or you could purchase dried stevia leaves online and skip the first step).

  1. Dry stevia leaves by putting them in the sun for 12 hours or by adding them to a dehydrator
  2. Places dried leaves in a glass container and fill with vodka to cover them completely
  3. Steep leaves in vodka for exactly 24 hours
  4. Filter out the leaves from the vodka with a strainer
  5. To remove the alcohol, heat the extract on low for 20 minutes (do not boil)
  6. Store mixture in a glass dropper bottle and keep in the refrigerator for 90 days

Health Benefits Of Stevia

Since we know that stevia doesn’t affect our blood glucose levels, would people who have trouble maintaining normal sugar levels benefit from switching to stevia?

Stevia To Help Diabetes

Diabetics have varying levels of glucose intolerance, meaning they don’t handle carbohydrates or sugar well, and have issues regulating blood sugar. Therefore they have to be very aware of what they eat. If a diabetic eats too much sugar, they can skyrocket their blood sugar, which causes headaches, blurred vision, and damage to nerves, eyes, and organs, just to name a few issues.As Kristin Mortensen at LiveStrong notes, since stevia contains chromium and magnesium, it may be helpful for diabetics. Chromium encourages normal glucose metabolism and “magnesium helps your body secrete more insulin and helps the insulin work better”.

Unfortunately, these specific vitamins and minerals are only found in the actual stevia leaves and not the powdered varieties.

Additionally, according to the American Diabetes Association, when you have type 2 diabetes your body does not use insulin properly because diabetics are generally insulin resistant. You see, the job of insulin is to push sugar out of the bloodstream into storage cells in the muscles, liver, or to fat. So with insulin resistance, the pancreas produces extra insulin to help bring down the high blood sugar and push it into cells.

So can stevia provide a helping hand?

An article in SFGate mentions a study published in the ‘Hormone and Metabolic Research’ journal regarding the effect of stevioside, a glycoside in stevia rebaudiana. In the trial, rats were given stevioside and fed a diet consisting of 60 percent fructose, or a simple fruit sugar. “Stevioside was found to decrease plasma glucose concentrations [lower blood sugar], improve insulin sensitivity [helping sugar get into storage cells] and delay the development of insulin resistance in the rats”.

This is all positive news, and researchers believe that study proves that stevia can be helpful for diabetics.

Stevia For Weight Control

There haven’t been any scientific studies about stevia leading to weight loss directly.However, if you’re someone who likes to add sugar to your morning coffee, afternoon tea, or sprinkled on top of some grapefruit, stevia could be helpful for you. Since one teaspoon of regular sugar is equivalent to 16 calories, you’ll at least be saving those few by switching to stevia. Plus, one teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 g of carbs, but pure stevia has basically none.

Stevia To Lower Blood Pressure

Dr. M.S. Melis, from the Department of Biology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, decided to test the effects stevioside had on blood pressure in rats. He administered stevia extracts to rats for 20, 40, and 60 days. There was no change in the rats’ blood pressure after 20 days, but “after 40 or 60 days of administering the extract, there was a lowering of blood pressure… [and] the amount of blood going to the kidneys was increased”.This doesn’t stop with rats though. reported that: “When normal human volunteers between the ages of 20 to 40 years were given a tea prepared with stevia leaves, a lowering of blood pressure occurred (Boeck, 1981)”.

Does Stevia Cause Cancer?

The FDA claims it was reluctant to approve stevia for consumption after it received reports that stevia was linked to infertility and cancer in rats during lab studies.Stevia was unfortunately roped into a group with other artificial, lab created sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin.

As Lisa Burnett writes for Harvard’s Food and Drug Law course: “Saccharin can be made from a coal-tar derivative, aspartame contains a compound that breaks down into formaldehyde upon digestion, and sucralose is made from adding chlorine to ordinary sugar molecules”.

Critics argue that certain strains of stevia can mutate DNA and cause cancer as a result of the processes it undergoes, although research has not been forthcoming to prove this.

In fact, there have been studies linking pure stevia to antitumor activity in breast cancer.

A study in Chemistry & Biodiversity concluded that steviol derivatives “induced typical apoptotic cell death” in leukemia cells… and might be useful for enhancement of their cytotoxicities with apoptosis-inducing activity”, meaning that stevia extracts may actually kill cancerous cells.

Stevia Interactions With Medicine

“Caution is advised when using medications that may also lower blood sugar. People taking insulin or drugs for diabetes by mouth should be monitored closely by a qualified healthcare professional, including a pharmacist”,  Catherine Ulbricht, senior pharmacist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and co-founder of Natural Standard Research Collaboration said for LiveScience.The article adds that stevia may also interact with anti-fungals, anti-inflammatories, anti-microbials, anti-cancer drugs, anti-virals, appetite suppressants, calcium channel blockers, cholesterol-lowering drugs, drugs that increase urination, fertility agents, and other medications.

It’s best to speak with your doctor if you plan on switching from sugar to stevia.

The Truth About Stevia

It seems like the shocking truth about stevia isn’t that it’s bad for you; it’s that just like the rest of the food in our diets, we need to consume stevia in its truest, most pure form, as an herb fresh from mother nature.Unprocessed, whole foods are always going to be more healthy than processed ones. Period. It seems like we always get into trouble when we start giving money to companies that turn healthy plants into horrible chemical version of themselves.

Personally, I’m not a big sweets guy. But if I was going to use sugar, I would certainly use pure stevia instead. While we need to wait for additional research to understand the long term effects stevia has on our bodies, it’s much better than other alternative sweeteners currently on the market.

What do you think? Do you use stevia?