Stevia: A Sweet Cheat?

It seems like the word popped into mainstream vocabulary and made its way into thousands of “diet foods” overnight. A “natural” sweetener that is up to 150 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories? The gods have shined their lights and delivered the ultimate gift to every sweet tooth and waistline! Or did they? Is Stevia all what it’s cracked up to be? Let’s take a look…


What Is Stevia?

For more than 1,500 years, leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant were used in South America to sweeten teas and medicines. However, most of the “stevia” you find on store shelves today are highly refined products from its extracts, hardly anything natural. Products that are marketed as “stevia” are actually sweeteners that contain steviol glycoside extracts (molecules that contain glucose and other non-sugar substances called aglycones). If you want a more “natural” stevia, you can find it for sale, but it hasn’t been approved by the FDA for use as a food additive/sweetener.


Is it Safe?

Although it was originally banned in the United States in 1991 because it was thought to be carcinogenic or “cancer-causing,” additional research suggested specific varieties of stevia were safe and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of specific stevia extracts containing purified rebaudioside A in 2008.


How Does It Taste?

Sweet (Duh!). Jokes aside, there are different stevia products and they vary in taste, which is all about personal preference. Some products have an aftertaste and some don’t. The aftertaste has been described as something similar to licorice. Some people prefer the powdered or granulated form of stevia, some prefer the liquid… You just have to try them to find one that you like. However, to make it easier to decide and to help you save money and not waste your precious time, make sure that the stevia you buy is organic without additives or alcohol. Those tend to leave the least aftertaste.


What Are The Health Benefits of Using Stevia?

There is conflicting evidence of its effect on blood sugar levels and insulin release from the pancreas. It’s important to mention that the intestinal tract contains its own “sweet receptors” similar to the taste buds in your mouth, however, there is insufficient evidence of the effect of stevia on those receptors and glucose absorption and hormone secretion in the gut. In addition, there are bacteria or “flora” in your gut. One study found that the glucose released in the process of breaking down stevia during digestion was metabolized by bacterial flora in the colon and was not absorbed into the bloodstream. However, more research is needed to confirm that it doesn’t have an effect on blood glucose levels.


So, Can Stevia Help With Weight Loss?

Again, there just isn’t enough research on it. Although it is zero calories, we don’t know how the body reacts to it and if its effects are similar to artificial sweeteners, it may actually cause weight gain.


What It Boils Down To…

Granted, we definitely consume way too much sugar in this country. However, the use of sugar substitutes may not be as beneficial as what we had hoped for, and stevia might be included in that list. We won’t know for certain until more research is performed. For me, I’m more of a “if it didn’t come directly from the Earth, I’m not putting it in my mouth” kinda girl. I’m sticking to natural cane sugar, but in moderation. However, if I had to choose between stevia and other sugar substitutes (Splenda, Sweet and Low, etc), I would go with stevia. Ideally, the best is to get rid of your sweet tooth, but that’s not always easy!

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