Some call it the “holy grail” of sweeteners.
Stevia, from a shrub grown in Central and South America, is some 200+ times sweeter than sugar, and doesn’t raise your blood insulin levels.
It’s also credited with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels and preventing heart disease. And it doesn’t add calories.
Since it does all that and comes from a plant, you’d think there’d be no chance of harm. But there are a few caveats…
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So many readers have asked my opinion on stevia, I went on a mission to separate the hype from the facts. It was a bit of a challenge, but here’s what I found out. I’ll lead off with a hint: make sure yours really is “natural.” Most stevia is not.
Trying to be skinny when
you have a sweet tooth…
We all know that sugar is one of the most dangerous – and addictive – products on the market. It can wreck your health in a hurry… making you overweight, depressed, and sick. It’s clearly, unmistakably linked to cancer.
The average American eats an appalling 130 pounds of the stuff per year. Which means someone eats 260 pounds, because I don’t eat my share.
So it’s nice to know there are alternatives out there that are safer than aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and neotame (the latest version of aspartame meant to downplay its dangers). Right?
The market for sugar substitutes is worth a dazzling $10.5 billion, based on 2012 statistics. And it’s growing fast. In 2000, just 18 percent of American adults used artificial sweeteners. By 2012, 24 percent of adults and 12 percent of children used them.i
In the jungle of chemical sweeteners, stevia sounds ideal. It’s been used medicinally for centuries. It’s been used in food in Japan, Brazil, and China for decades now, with what officials call an excellent safety profile.
Yet it was banned in the U.S. in 1991. So what gives?
Does money speak louder than safety?
One early study showed that high doses reduced sperm production and might cause infertility in rats. Another showed birth weight problems. Plus, there were concerns about possible liver damage.
Anyway, by 1995, the FDA allowed stevia to be imported and sold as a supplement. But it still couldn’t be sold as a sweetener, in response to heavy resistance from the beverage industry.
Then came a change. In the early 2000’s, several big players in the food and chemical industries – most notably Coca-Cola, Cargill, and Pepsi – teamed up and pressured the FDA to approve stevia as G.R.A.S. (Generally Recognized as Safe).
Hmmm. Is your internal B.S. detector going off like mine is?
Not till a couple of behemoth food companies promoted it did stevia become legal. Like it or not, these industry giants wield huge influence on what gets approved by the FDA.
It should also be noted that the GRAS designation bypasses the most rigorous approval process required for food additives. It is assumed that the companies have done their due diligence, and that the additive will not induce negative health consequences.
Your stevia isn’t really stevia
The word “natural” is unregulated. Sugar is natural. So is arsenic. You can call just about anything natural. Manufacturers claim – reasonably enough – that stevia is natural because it comes from the leaf of a South American shrub. Coca-Cola spokesman Ray Crockett claims, “Truvia is all natural. It’s the same process cane sugar goes through.”
Stevia, like all plants, contains numerous active agents… in this case, stevioside compounds, rebaudiosides, and more.
Generally, it’s the synergy of all these agents that confer an herb’s health benefits with very few, if any, side effects. The ‘non-active’ compounds provide built-in protection.
But here’s the catch (or part of it)…
The approval for “stevia” was not for the whole plant. It was only for the active ingredient rebaudioside A (Reb A), one of the sweetening agents in the plant.
Stevia has been used safely (as far as we can tell) for centuries, but Reb A has not. Its long-term impact on human health is unknown. This raises an important question: How safe is this concentrated extract, minus all the other compounds from the original plant? So far, no one knows for sure…
Besides the concerns about stripping Reb A from its holistic source, the amount and nature of processing should give you pause.
Stevia goes through heavy processing
Coca-Cola’s branded stevia product, Truvia, is so processed it takes a whopping 40 steps to get from leaf to final product. The process uses plenty of chemicals (including some known carcinogens) – acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol. They don’t quite sound like real food, do they?
But wait, there’s more. Two other added ingredients should make you flee also.
The first, erythritol, is a naturally occurring sugar found in some fresh fruits. But make no mistake… food manufacturers do not use the natural stuff. Instead, they start with GMO corn, which they put through a complex fermentation process to create 99.5% pure erythritol.ii
Then they add “natural flavors”… probably to get rid of the metallic taste.
A former head of the FDA, David Kessler, once commented that natural flavors contribute to an addictive “food carnival” in your mouth. This hijacks your brain’s satiety signals and tricks your mind into craving more and more. You can guess how that works out.
‘Stevia in the Raw’ sounds safer, till you look at the first ingredient on the label (dextrose) — which makes it clear this isn’t just raw stevia. PepsiCo’s “Pure Via” also shows dextrose as the first ingredient.
Dextrose is another sweetener derived from genetically modified corn, with a long convoluted manufacturing process similar to erythritol.
Can you find a “true” stevia? Yes, but. . .
The question of stevia’s safety largely depends on what you mean by “stevia.”
Even certified organic stevia can fool you. One brand includes more organic agave inulin than it does stevia! Agave inulin is a highly processed product derived from the blue agave plant, bearing no resemblance to the original plant.
Besides its heavy processing and other possible negatives, stevia poses other concerns.
Some researchers worry about a cancer connection for stevia. Now that I know they use carcinogens in processing it, I’m concerned too, a least a little. Hopefully none of these chemicals find their way into the final product. But, in general, I avoid processed food.
At least one study by John Pezzuto, Dean of the University of Hawaii Hilo’s College of Pharmacy, suggests that one strain of stevia can mutate DNA and pose a cancer risk. Given that potential, why take the risk? Pezzuto says he won’t be consuming any.
However, researcher David Brusick disagrees. He claims that animal and human studies have found no mutagenic effects. However, it’s known that Brusick was hired by stevia-producing companies to conduct this evaluation. Skepticism is warranted.
Critics of stevia also wonder whether it can fire up your appetite, as other artificial sweeteners do.
Scientists know that anything with a sweet taste primes your body to expect calories. And if it doesn’t get the calories it expects, well, it stimulates you to just keep eating till it does. Combined with “natural flavors,” this seems to be the perfect recipe for weight gain.
Studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners can reset your gut to promote weight gain, though the proposition hasn’t yet been tested with stevia.
In fact, there’s been precious little testing done on stevia, despite the hype about its safety.
I’m wary, at least till we know more. At a minimum, get closer to the actual plant…
You can obtain truly natural stevia
Beverages are the primary source of sugar/sweeteners in America. If you can learn to crave non-sweet beverages – like water, seltzer or tea – you’ll reduce your need for any sweeteners.
I long ago learned to enjoy coffee and tea without sugar. They taste great. Try it, and for the first time you’ll be tasting the beverage instead of the sugar. (Give yourself a little time to adjust.) There are vast categories of food, especially processed foods, where you’re mostly tasting the sweeteners instead of the foods themselves.
Still, if you got to have it sweet, try these for a more holistic stevia:
Alternatively… forget stevia and use true natural sweeteners like local honey and pure maple syrup (from the tree, not the manufacturing plant). These are high–glycemic, so use in moderation. Just be aware, they’re not much healthier than sugar. You don’t reap the stevia advantage, because stevia takes only one-half of one percent of the amount of sugar to achieve the same sweetness.
Or go low-glycemic with coconut palm sugar, suitable for diabetics and pre-diabetics. Coconut sugar is also high in amino acids, potassium, and magnesium, compared to conventional sugar.
Lee Euler, Publisher