We all know that refined sugar isn’t healthy and increased awareness about the damaging effects of its consumption has led to the development and use of many different sugar substitutes.
However, some of these sugar substitutes are also harmful and have a host of ill side effects, and it can be hard to determine which – if any – are safe to consume. One alternative sweetener that often gets lost in this confusion is stevia.
What is Stevia?
Stevia is an extraordinarily sweet herb. In fact, it is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar and it has a slight liquorice aftertaste. It’s actually a member of the chrysanthemum family and closely related to tarragon and chamomile. It’s completely safe and has been used for centuries by the Guarani people of South America where it grows wild. Stevia is also calorie free; this is why it’s often found in so many different ‘diet food products’.
According to Donna Gates, author of the Body Ecology Diet book, stevia helps to increase energy levels, doesn’t trigger a change in blood sugar levels and most importantly, it doesn’t feed or encourage the growth of yeasts or microorganisms, which is great if you’re on a gut healing protocol.
There are two compounds in stevia that are responsible for its sweetness: Stevioside and rebaudioside A. Rebaudioside A is most often extracted and used in stevia powders and sweeteners.
Stevia is available in 3 forms:
1. White Powdered Stevia (most popular form)
This is the most commonly consumed type of stevia because it’s readily available and easy to use. It’s also found in many products on our grocery store shelves (protein powders, low-calorie snacks, diet drinks, etc). This is also the type of stevia you want to AVOID. It’s not really stevia at all by the time it goes through a 42-step process! First, the rebaudioside A is extracted from the stevia leaf, and then chemical solvents are added, including acetonitrile, which is toxic to the liver and a carcinogen. Then manufacturers often add additional ingredients such as GMO corn derivatives called erythritol or dextrose.
- Works well in baked goods as the white powdered stevia will not change the colour of the baked goods
- Easily accessible as you’ll find it available on the shelves of your local grocery store
- Has no aftertaste and can be easily substituted for refined, white or raw sugar in recipes
- Calorie free
- Has a glycemic index of zero (meaning it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels), making it a sweetener of choice for those who suffer from candida, or who have sugar metabolism issues, like diabetes.
- Highly processed – it goes through a 42-step process
- Can contain GMO derivatives such as dextrose or erythritol
- Side effects for some people can include; upset stomach, bloating, headaches and metabolism changes. Some research has shown that refined, processed stevia can cause interference in the way the body absorbs carbohydrates. This ultimately limits your ability to convert food to energy!
- Consuming massive doses of stevia has also been found to alter fertility in rats (there are no human studies on this yet though)
- It can also be blended with a filler such as fructooligosaccharides, or FOS, which is a plant-based fibre.
2. Liquid Stevia
The information I came across in regards to how liquid stevia is made/processed was incredibly varied. But ultimately, liquid stevia is a better choice than the white powdered version because it’s less processed. Stevia extract is available as a liquid and is often mixed with either water, glycerin, alcohol or a grapefruit base (or a combination of these). The glycosides are extracted from the leaves using either water or alcohol and membrane filtration. Because it evaporates, no alcohol remains in the finished product. The liquid becomes clear rather than green because the extraction process removes the chlorophyll, and white glycosides remain. You can read more about the processing and extraction of stevia here. No bleach or other chemical whiteners should be used, according to the SweetLeaf Company.
However, I also came across this source that mentions stevia leaves are washed in acetone. Acetone, when exposed to the air quickly evaporates and remains highly flammable. It has been linked to skin, eye, nose and throat irritation as well as headaches, nausea and dizziness.
- Stevia doesn’t cause toxic effects
- Liquid stevia is very convenient as it dissolves instantly in smoothies, tea, coffee, hot chocolates, panna cotta and slices
- You can keep a small bottle of this in your handbag and add it to tea, coffee, chai lattes or hot chocolates while out at a café
- You only require a very small amount because it is concentrated. Further, because a little goes a long way, it is less expensive than many other sweeteners.
- Less processed than the white version of stevia powders.
- It still requires some processing to make it into a liquid form (the exact process is still unknown to me and varies from source to source and from company to company)
- It can often have added natural flavours, vegetable glycerine, alcohol or preservatives in the various forms of liquid extracts
- Some liquid forms still have the bitter liquorice aftertaste and some do not, this means you may have to shop around and try various brands
- It’s hard to know how much liquid stevia to use in replace of sugar as it is so concentrated.
3. Green Stevia Leaf Powder
Green leaf stevia is just dehydrated stevia leaves that have been ground into powder form – that’s it! This is the type of stevia that’s been used in South America and Japan for centuries as a natural sweetener and health remedy. No human studies have ever shown any problems from pure and natural forms of stevia and dozens of studies have shown potential benefits from it – this sweet herb may support blood sugar, weight loss and possibly have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties (Chris Kresser goes into detail on some of the studies here). Personally, I feel safe using stevia in leaf form or tinctures made from the stevia leaf form.
- Has no effect on blood sugar
- Improves insulin sensitivity and lowers glucose in rats
- Contains micronutrients including potassium, zinc, magnesium, and iron (this is true of most natural, unprocessed sweeteners)
- It doesn’t feed or encourage the growth of yeasts or microorganisms. Specifically, this study shows that the extract can kill a particularly nasty strain of E. coli while leaving gut flora intact.
- Not everyone likes the liquorice aftertaste of stevia, especially the green powdered version
- The most natural form of stevia powder is green, so it can actually change the colour of certain foods
- Even in its natural form, it has an extremely sweet natural taste but doesn’t affect blood sugar levels. While I have listed this as a ‘pro’ in the previous points, there is also a potential downside to this because the body expects a blood sugar change when consuming sweet foods. Some researchers such as Dr Sarah Ballantyne also present some concerns about the potential hormone-mimicking and altering effects of stevia. Dr Ballantyne presents that there is evidence that steviol glycosides have contraceptive effects in both males and females. In particular, one specific steviol glycoside, called stevioside, has been shown to have potent contraceptive properties in female rats, implying that stevia may have an impact on estrogen, progesterone or both. While small and occasional consumption of stevia likely has little to no impact on general health, it should not be consumed on a regular basis, especially by those with altered hormone balance and dysfunctional immune systems. However, as mentioned earlier, the only studies I found were on rats and they indicated that extremely large amounts of the stevioside part of the plant would need to be consumed to affect hormone balance. As stevioside only makes up 10% of the sweet compounds in the plant, I don’t think this is of huge concern, especially for moderate or occasional use. You can read Dr Ballantyne’s article ‘The Trouble with Stevia’ for more information.
What I Recommend
Buy the liquid stevia drops (without flavours or dubious ingredients) and/or green leaf stevia (the whole, unprocessed stuff), and use it in moderation. If you can tolerate the aftertaste, it’s a much better choice than refined sugar. This is what I use (although not daily) and I also recommend it to many of my clients who are working on healing their gut issues. Occasional consumption of stevia likely has little to no impact on general health. Remember, however, that nature has plenty of other incredibly nutrient dense, natural sweeteners you can also use. These include fruits like bananas, apples, pears and mangoes, raw honey, pure maple syrup, and organic dried fruits such as apricots, dates, sultanas and figs.
If you would like more information on other sweeteners, you might like to read the following blogs:
- Donna Gates – Body Ecology Diet