The stevia plant has been used for more than 1,500 years by the Guaraní people of Brazil and Paraguay, who refer to it as ka’a he’ê, meaning “sweet herb.”
These native South Americans love using this non-caloric sugar substitute in their yerba mate tea, as medicine and a sweet treat. In these countries, it has also been used specifically as a traditional medicine for burns, stomach problems, colic and even as a form of contraception. So, if it’s such a sweet treat, are there stevia side effects that may make it bad for you?
Stevia extract is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, depending on the specific compound discussed, which means that you only need a tiny bit at a time to sweeten your morning tea or next batch of healthy baked goods. And fortunately, side effects are not typically common, especially if you choose the right product.
Several articles and other sources online claim that there may be some negative stevia side effects. This can be confusing, especially because it’s often touted as one of the healthiest natural sweeteners around.
So is stevia bad for you? In this article, we’ll lay out for you both the good and the bad about how stevia side effects may affect your health, as well as the distinctions between the many types of this natural sweetener.
What Is Stevia?
Stevia is an herbal plant that belongs to the Asteraceae family, which means it’s closely related to ragweed, chrysanthemums and marigolds. Although there are over 200 species, Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is the most prized variety, and the cultivar used for production of most edible products.
In 1931, chemists M. Bridel and R. Lavielle isolated the two steviol glycosides that make the leaves of the plant sweet: stevioside and rebaudioside (with five variations: A, C, D, E and F). Stevioside is sweet, but also has a bitter aftertaste that many complain about when using it, while isolated rebaudioside is sweet without the bitterness.
Many raw or minimally processed stevia products contain both types of compounds, whereas more highly processed forms only contain the rebaudiosides, which is the sweetest part of the leaf.
Rebiana, or high-purity rebaudioside A, is generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and may be used as an artificial sweetener in foods and beverages.
Research shows that using the whole leaf or purified rebaudioside A boasts some great health benefits, but the same benefits may not hold true for altered blends that actually contain very little of the plant itself.
1. Anticancer Abilities
In 2012, Nutrition and Cancer highlighted a groundbreaking laboratory study that, for the first time ever, showed that stevia extract could help kill off breast cancer cells. It was observed that stevioside enhances cancer apoptosis (cell death) and decreases certain stress pathways in the body that contribute to cancer growth.
Another in vitro study out of China also found that steviol, which is a component found naturally in the leaves of the plant, was effective at blocking the growth and spread of gastrointestinal cancer cells, suggesting that it could possess powerful cancer-fighting properties.
2. Sweet News for Diabetics
Using stevia instead of white sugar can be extremely beneficial to those with diabetes who need to limit conventional sugar as part of a diabetic diet plan.
A 2015 article published in Journal of Dietary Supplements evaluated how stevia may impact rats with diabetes. In the study, administering the sweetener to rats was found to significantly reduce blood sugar levels and increase insulin sensitivity, both of which can help promote blood sugar control in those with diabetes.
Another study in humans found that consuming stevia before a meal reduced blood sugar and insulin levels after eating. Additionally, although participants consumed fewer calories than they did with the sugar preload, they reported similar levels of satiety and didn’t compensate by consuming more calories later in the day.
3. Supports Weight Loss
Added sugar consumption contributes more than 13 percent of the total calories each day in the average American diet. High sugar intake has been linked to weight gain and adverse effects on blood sugar, two things that can have serious negative impacts on health.
Stevia is a plant-based, zero-calorie sweetener. Swapping out harmful table sugar and replacing it with a high-quality stevia leaf extract can help you slash added sugar consumption and cut back on calories too.
For this reason, stevia is one of the most popular keto sweeteners and is also often used in other low-carb diets like Paleo. Keeping your sugar and calorie intake in a healthy range can help protect against weight gain and health problems linked with obesity, like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
4. Improves Cholesterol Levels
Some studies have found that stevia leaf extract could improve cholesterol levels to help keep your heart healthy and strong.
For example, a 2018 animal model found that administering stevia leaf extract to rats for eight weeks helped reduce levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides and bad LDL cholesterol while also enhancing levels of good HDL cholesterol as well.
Similarly, a 2009 study showed that stevia extract had “positive and encouraging effects” on overall cholesterol profiles and effectively improved HDL cholesterol, decreased triglycerides and lowered levels of LDL cholesterol.
5. Lowers High Blood Pressure
Certain glycosides in stevia extract have been found to dilate blood vessels and increase sodium excretion, both of which can help support healthy blood pressure levels.
One study in Clinical Therapeutics showed that consuming capsules with 500 milligrams of stevioside three times daily for two years led to significant reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels.
Keep in mind, however, that research on the potential effects of on blood pressure levels has turned up mixed results, and some short-term studies have found no impact. Therefore, more studies are needed to understand how it may impact blood pressure in the long-run.
Is Stevia Safe?
For most people, stevia can be consumed safely with minimal risk of adverse effects on health. For instance, a study conducted by National University Asunción in Paraguay found that consuming stevia daily for three months was well-tolerated and not associated with any negative side effects.
Highly refined and purified steviol glycosides are considered by the FDA to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as sweeteners in food. The FDA has not approved whole-leaf or crude stevia leaf extracts as GRAS for food because the safety of these unprocessed extracts has not yet been proven in clinical trials; however, they may be used in dietary supplements.
A 1999 study indicates that chronic administration could decrease the fertility of male animals and may affect hormones because its glycosides have a similar structure to plant hormones like gibberellin. However, many herbs, including ginkgo biloba, also have this natural component and are safe when consumed in moderation.
A study published in Physiology & Behavior also reported that non-nutritive sweeteners such as stevia could disrupt the beneficial bacteria in the gut and could cause other metabolic issues such as glucose intolerance, but more research is still needed to evaluate the long-term effects on gut health.
Risks and Side Effects
In some people, stevia may cause mild side effects such as bloating, nausea, dizziness, numbness and muscle pain.
Certain products may also contain dextrin or maltodextrin, which can increase blood sugar levels and minimize any potential health benefits.
Blends that contain sugar alcohols may also cause digestive issues in those who are sensitive. Common symptoms can include bloating, gas and diarrhea.
Additionally, stevia could potentially cause allergic reactions in people with an allergy to ragweed, as they belong to the same family of plants. However, this has never been reported nor studied in structured research.
When it comes to the options available today, it’s important to know that not all stevia sweeteners are created equal. In fact, there has been concern in recent years about counterfeit stevia, or products laced with unwanted ingredients, which is one likely reason the FDA has been slow to approve all stevia as GRAS.
Green leaf stevia is the least processed of the types. The leaves are dried and ground into powder form, producing a final product that is only about 10-15 times sweeter than sugar. This unprocessed version more than likely contains a combination of steviosides and rebaudiosides.
Purified stevia extracts are also available. In the U.S., this type of sweetner is comprised of rebaudioside A in either a pure extract or our third type (altered blends). Per FDA standards set forth in 2008, these extracts must contain over 95% or more pure rebaudioside A glycosides and may not contain other forms of rebaudiosides or steviosides in order to be legally marketed as food.
While purified stevia extracts are more processed than green leaf varieties, their health benefits seem to be on par with its unprocessed counterpart.
Finally, the least healthy option is altered stevia blends. By the time a product like this is placed on a shelf, very little of the stevia plant still remains, and many purified stevia extracts and altered blends are reported to be 200-400 times sweeter than sugar.
Some companies use processes to create these blends that include chemical solvents, including acetonitrile, which is toxic to the central nervous system, and a corn-based derivative called erythritol. The small amount remaining contains rebaudioside A only in the U.S.
Organic vs. Non-Organic
- Made from organically grown stevia
- No glycemic impact
- Naturally gluten-free
Unfortunately, even some organic versions contain fillers. Some aren’t truly pure stevia, so you should always read labels if you’re looking for a 100 percent stevia product.
- Does not have to be made from organically grown stevia, meaning it may be produced with pesticides or other chemicals
- Non-GMO (there are currently no genetically modified cultivars of stevia in the world)
- No glycemic impact
- Naturally gluten-free
With non-organic brands, it’s very important to look for additional ingredients, like erythritol or inulin. Although stevia itself is always non-GMO, many non-organic products are combined with erythritol or other non-nutritive sweeteners, many of which are made from GMO ingredients like corn.
Excess sugar consumption is associated with a slew of negative side effects, including heart problems, diabetes, liver disease and weight gain. In fact, just one tablespoon of table sugar contains around 16 calories and 4 grams of sugar.
Stevia, on the other hand, is free of calories and has been linked to several potential health benefits, including decreased cholesterol and blood pressure levels, better blood sugar control and increased insulin sensitivity.
Aspartame is a common sweetener found in most diet sodas and many “sugar-free” foods. Although it’s free of calories, it has also been associated with several adverse effects on health. In those who are sensitive, it may also contribute to issues like depression and headaches.
Sucralose (also known as Splenda) is another popular sweetener that has been presented as a healthy alternative to aspartame since its approval in the 1990s. However, there are reports that sucralose may also be problematic, particularly because the body metabolizes it differently than most artificial sweeteners.
Sucralose has been thought to be safe in high-heat cooking, but a 2013 report reviewing the safety of this substance found that it generates toxins called chloropropanols when exposed to high temperatures. Another major difference between stevia vs Splenda is that sucralose may negatively impact glucose metaoblism and insulin sensitivity.
To avoid artificial sweeteners, many people choose items sweetened with sugar alcohols, which are low-calorie sweeteners such as erythritol, xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol.
While these aren’t exactly the same as artificial sweeteners in their composition and don’t cause spikes in blood sugar like table sugar does, they are associated with digestive side effects like bloating, diarrhea and gas. Plus, they may also impact blood sugar for people with type 1 diabetes.
Another key distinction between sugar alcohols such as erythritol vs stevia is that they are often extracted from genetically modified corn, which many people choose to avoid due to concerns about long-term safety.
Besides stevia, there are several other natural sweeteners that you can enjoy in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
In particular, raw honey, dates, coconut sugar, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, balsamic glaze, banana puree, brown rice syrup and real fruit jam are all healthy sugar substitute options that can sweeten up any dish.
Keep in mind that these do impact caloric intake and blood sugar. Unlike regular sugar, however, they often provide important micronutrients and offer several health benefits as well.
How to Use
Stevia sweeteners are available online or at most local grocery stores, both in powdered and liquid form. Keep in mind: The best stevia will have no additives, including other sweeteners, and should be USDA certified organic and non-GMO.
For green leaf (technically considered a supplement in the US, not a food), try Organic Traditions Organic Green Leaf Stevia Powder®. For a purified extract (the only food-approved type in the U.S.), SweetLeaf® Stevia is a popular choice, which is available in liquid and white powder forms.
You can also buy whole dried leaves and grind them at home, although it’s recommended you don’t use homegrown stevia for baking or cooking because of the chemical reactions that may occur.
It is available in both powders and liquid forms. The liquid varieties are useful for sweetening coffee, teas, healthy smoothies or natural stevia soda recipes. Powders work best for cooking and baking — and a little goes a long way.
Try these basic conversions the next time you replace sugar with this natural sweetener:
- 1 teaspoon sugar = 1/2 packet or 1/8 teaspoon stevia powder = 5 stevia drops
- 1 tablespoon sugar = 1.5 packets or 1/3 teaspoon stevia powder = 15 drops liquid stevia
- 1 cup of sugar = 24 packets or 2 tablespoons stevia powder = 2 teaspoons liquid stevia
The only substitution that won’t work is caramelization in desserts, as it doesn’t brown like conventional sugar.
- What is stevia? Stevia is a no-calorie sweetener and sugar substitute that is derived from Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni.
- Unlike many other non-nutritive or low-calorie sweeteners, this popular sugar substitute is associated with several health benefits and very few stevia dangers.
- Is stevia healthy? Some research shows that this natural sweetener may help lower cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure, improve blood sugar control and could possess cancer-fighting properties.
- Because it’s virtually free of calories and carbs, it’s also a popular choice for keto and other low-carb diets such as Paleo and may aid in weight loss.
- There are many differences between stevia vs sugar, sucralose vs stevia and sugar alcohols like xylitol vs stevia, especially when it comes to their impact on blood sugar levels, weight control and overall health.
- However, keep in mind that not all stevia sweeteners are created equal. Some are highly processed or blended with other sweeteners, which can negate any of the potential health benefits.
- Be sure to opt for organic, green leaf stevia whenever possible and check the ingredients label carefully to ensure you’re getting the best bang for your buck.
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