Stevia is a plant-based sweetener—but is it bad for you? Our nutritionist has the verdict on this controversial ingredient.
The rainbow of sugar substitutes—in pink, blue, yellow, or green packets—has slowly expanded each decade. I’ve found that people tend to lump the different types together, especially when it comes to their purported health effects.
But the FDA actually classifies stevia (the green one) differently, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest gives it one of only two “safe” ratings in its substitute comparison. So is stevia a safe—or safer—option than sugar or other sugar substitutes? I dug into the latest research to find out.
What Is Stevia?
Stevia comes from the sweet leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, but the leaves aren’t actually used to create the stevia product we buy at the grocery store. Instead, the sweet-tasting compounds in the leaves known as glycosides are extracted, dehydrated, and purified. The end result is an extracted, plant-based sweetener that provides a taste that is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, with no significant calories.
Stevia is sold under brands names such as Truvia, PureVia, SweetLeaf, and Stevia-in-the-Raw. You’ll find the dry powder version in a green packet or container, but it can also be purchased as a liquid. In the past few years, food manufacturers are slowly starting to incorporate it into new products, as well as replace artificial sweeteners in existing products with it. Here are a few where you’ll find it:
- Coca-Cola Life
- Vitamin Water Zero
- Dannon’s Light & Fit and Triple Zero Oikos yogurts
- Skinny Cow’s ice cream and ice cream sandwiches
- Breyer’s Delights ice creams, as well as other low-calorie ice creams like Halo Top
- Capri Sun Sport
Is Stevia a Safer Option?
Whether in the form of research or opinion, the information available on sugar substitutes is overwhelming. I felt the best place to start when assessing stevia’s healthfulness was understanding how or if it’s that different compared to others on the market.
Natural vs. Artificial
Stevia is one of the few sweeteners that is plant-based, not chemically created in a lab, and proponents suggest it is one of the few “natural” sweeteners since. In fact, food products sweetened with stevia are often labeled as containing “no artificial sweeteners”. This sounds pretty good (and maybe much better than alternatives), but it’s key to remember that the term “natural” can currently be used very loosely and doesn’t really mean much per labeling guidelines.
Stevia is one of only two sweeteners the FDA has given GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status when used as an ingredient. To get this designation, the FDA requires that an ingredient have peer-reviewed research and data regarding its safety when consumed as suggested and a history of safe usage.
Stevia and monk fruit are the only low-calorie sweeteners designated GRAS. All others—like saccharine (ex: Sweet’N Low), aspartame (ex: Equal), and sucralose (ex: Splenda)—are considered food additives that do not meet the GRAS specifications.
Regulation by the FDA is considered a little more laid-back when compared to other countries that govern food safety, so I was interested to know where else stevia usage was allowed. I found that not only is stevia allowed for use in numerous countries in Asia, South America, Australia, and Europe, but both the European Food Safety Authority and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives have deemed stevia safe for use as a sweetener. In addition, stevia is one of the only sweeteners allowed for use in Japan since artificial sweeteners were banned almost 50 years ago.
Low-calorie sweeteners never had a great reputation, but they’ve taken even more hits over the past two decades as studies have suggested their intake may be linked to increased appetite, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and gut imbalances. Potential negative effects like these are one of the main reasons an individual may choose to avoid low-calorie sweeteners, so does stevia demonstrate these same things?
Cancer: Studies do not suggest that stevia causes or contributes to cancer development. And because the stevia plant contains phytochemicals that act as antioxidants, some have suggested the stevia plant could actually play a role in preventing cancer. However, there are limited long-term studies using the extracted stevia product sold.
Body weight: Theoretically, replacing calories from sugar with a non-caloric sweetener should aid in weight loss efforts, and while most research points in that direction, results aren’t clear-cut. Some research suggests that consuming certain low-calorie sweeteners could increase appetite, sweet cravings, and thus overall food intake. However, studies looking at stevia do not support this. Satiety after consuming a food sweetened with stevia as opposed to sugar was equivalent, and there were no differences in caloric intakes.
Blood glucose and insulin response: Sugar substitutes with no calories don’t usually affect blood glucose levels, but some have questioned how they might impact insulin response. However, research suggest stevia may actually assist in reducing blood glucose following a meal and improve insulin response. Stevia is considered safe for those with diabetes, and some have speculated may potentially have some beneficial effects for those individuals.
Gut heath: How low-calorie sweeteners affect good gut bacteria is a newer area of research, and one that likely holds answers to many of the health questions already mentioned. But, it’s where there’s the least knowledge. It’s also an area of research that’s difficult to identify cause-and-effect since gut health is impacted by so many variables. While more research is definitely needed here, the answer as to whether stevia affects gut health is “maybe”. Preliminary research suggests it may largely depend on a person’s existing bacteria count and diversity, genetics, food intake, and environment.
Verdict on Stevia
My biggest concern as a health professional (and a consumer) is that we really don’t know the effect that consuming any low-calorie sweetener may have over a 50, 60, or 70-year time period. However, the data surrounding stevia extract to-date is primarily positive surrounding stevia, and I think—as with a lot of other foods—moderation is the key. Do I think stevia is safe? I think occasional to minimal consumption is probably okay, which is something that I can’t really say about most other sugar subs.