Evidence is mounting that sugar is the primary factor causing not just obesity, but also chronic and lethal disease.
Sugar contributes to the dietary glycemic load, which provokes the metabolic syndrome and is related to the risk of diabetes and coronary artery disease.
These days, sugar has overtaken almost every edible product in your supermarkets. Sugars are found in your fruit juices, soft drinks, and chocolate milks. Take a look at some of the foods you snack on too. Sugar is found in your pretzels and your cheese spreads.
I’m not talking about small amounts of sugar either. Your Minute Maid orange juice contains 24g of sugar per 8 oz. glass. An 8 oz. can of Coca Cola contains 26g of sugar. That is too much sugar and is quite alarming to me!
According to the American Heart Association, the recommended grams of sugar per day for men 37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons. The recommended daily sugar intake for women is 25 grams or 6 teaspoons per day.
Sugar has silently invaded the nutrition label of most processed food items at your local supermarket.
Obesity is linked to many serious conditions such as:
- Cardiovascular disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
- Certain forms of cancer
If only we could eat less sugar, maybe we could help prevent diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. We could have healthier populations to live longer and enjoy life without such complications.
So today I want to dive into the truth about stevia and wether or not it is safe to substitute refined sugar with foods and drinks sweetened with stevia. Let’s take a look at stevia vs. sugar.
What is Stevia?
So what is stevia and what does the research say about it? Is stevia safer than sugar and is it bad for you?
For those of you who are hearing about stevia for the first time, stevia comes from the stevia plant. It is a natural sweetener that contains zero calories. Stevia originated among the short wild shrubs in the tropical climates of South America.
For centuries, the South American regions have used the stevia plant as a natural sweetener.
The stevia extract, Rebaudiosides A, is used in sodas, sports drinks, tabletop packets, and baking blends is 100 to 300 times sweeter than cane sugar.
Stevioside and Rebaudiosides A are the most dominant glycosides among others found in stevia. It is significantly sweeter than table sugar, and comparable in sweetness to products such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, but it is metabolized differently.
According to a study in 2004, stevia has zero effects on blood sugar because it does not enter the bloodstream. This is what gives it its insulinotropic traits and may serve a potential role as treatment in type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Two French chemist successfully isolated stevioside from the leaf of the plant in 1931. This brought stevia to the attention of the Japanese which began cultivating stevia as an alternative to artificial sweeteners while there was research linking artificial sweeteners to cancer in the early 1970s.
After Japan was introduces to this ideal sugar replacement, the product succeeded so quickly that by 1988 almost 41% of all the sweet substances sold in Japan contained stevia as the sweetening agent.
Though stevia is widely used all over the world, the United States had once banned the use of this plant as a sweetener in 1991 based on studies that claimed that it can cause cancer.
After hearing this I had to do my own research and share it with you.
What Does The FDA Have To Say About Stevia?
How could anyone justify that a perfectly natural source of sugar used over centuries in numerous countries could actually have adverse health effects on some populations but not the rest?
My confusion started when I read about stevia’s rocky history with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and how it found its identity into the US market. Through my research, I learned that stevia and the FDA have shared a love-hate relationship.
While this plant is safely used in more than 10 countries worldwide, the FDA in the United States had different opinions about the safety of stevia as a food additive.
After a detailed evaluation of all the studies, for and against stevia, the FDA banned the use of the plant in 1991. The decision was based on the fact that stevia may be associated with cancer and infertility.
It wasn’t until the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 forced the FDA to reconsider stevia. The FDA agreed to promote stevia as a dietary supplement, but not a food additive.
With the help of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2006, the WHO passed a statement quoting “stevioside and Rebaudioside A are not genotoxic.” Stevia was a step closer to getting an FDA approval in the United States.
So, the years went on and still no approval. Several companies argued to the FDA that stevia should be categorized similarly to its artificial-sweetener cousins as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).
These substances considered GRAS have been determined to be safe through expert consensus, scientific review or widespread use without negative complications.
In December 2008, the FDA accepted this argument, declared stevia GRAS, and allowed its use in mainstream U.S. food production. Stevia extracts were sold under the brand names of Truvia, PureVia and SweetLeaf.
This means these commercially produced stevia extracts made by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo., respectively, were labeled GRAS before the actual plant was.
Still to this day, the FDA says that stevia raises concerns and these “concerns are the control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems.”
This was confusing to me. How can a product that has been chemically purified and extracted from a naturally occurring plant be safer to use than the 100% natural source itself?
The only way you can answer such questions is to understand the extraction process.
Let’s take a look at the stevia extraction process.
Stevia Extracts Are “Safe” But Not “Pure”
The manufacturing process of the stevia extract involves three major steps:
The refined stevia readily available at your nearest supermarket goes through a multi-stage purification process and is nothing like the naturally occurring stevia leaf.
A classic example of this is Truvia, the second best-selling sweetener in the United States.
Zanna McFerson, ex-assistant Vice President at Cargill (they own Truvia) said:
“The rapid acceptance of Truvia natural sweetener since its launch, shows that consumers want a natural, great tasting, zero-calorie sweetener.”
And yes it is true; consumers like you and me do want natural sweeteners, but is Truvia really as natural as it claims to be?
Let’s do some of our own research on stevia and Truvia.
Truvia is manufactured from a blend of erythritol, which is a naturally occurring sugar found in certain fruits. The other ingredients include Rebaudioside A and other natural flavors that are not disclosed.
Erythritol is the main ingredient of the Truvia composition.
So let’s move on to the next substance.
If you remember from my above discussion I mentioned that stevia has two major sweetening agents namely steviosides and Rebaudioside A.
Research has proven that steviosides and not Rebaudioside A are safe and beneficial for the health of diabetics and hypertensive patients. In one study, stevioside actually significantly decreased systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure compared to the placebo group.
Regardless of such published evidence of health benefits, Truvia contains no steviosides and only tiny amounts of purified Rebaudioside A, which has not been linked to any health benefits.
But the most questionable of them all is the natural flavoring used in the preparation of such refined stevia extracts.
The FDA loosely classifies natural flavors. It is fair to assume that the natural flavors are probably not that natural. The term is very loosely regulated by the FDA. A company is free to label any flavor as natural, as long as it is chemically equivalent to a natural flavor.
So with a non-disclosure of what these flavors are composed of, it is safe to assume that these natural flavors are probably not very natural after all.
Having gone through these ingredients in details I concluded that, the stevia extracts available today are not as natural as the original stevia leaf itself.
I back this statement based on two lawsuits that were filed against Cargill, the chief manufacturer of Truvia along with Coca-Cola Co., for deceptive marketing and incorrect use of the word “natural.”
A lawsuit in 2012 accuses Cargill (makers of Truvia) of unfair, deceptive and unlawful business practices with respect to the marketing, advertising, labeling and sales of Truvia natural sweeteners.
The erythritol used in the production of Truvia should not be termed as natural based on U.S. Patent No. 0037266 as it is chemically synthesized from genetically modified corn.
Another lawsuit in 2013 claimed Cargill was misleading shoppers by marketing Truvia products as “natural” as the Reb-A steviol glycosides they contain are “highly chemical processed” and the bulking agent used erythritol is “synthetically made.”
Though these are better substitutes to your tabletop sugar and are well tolerated among other choices of sweeteners, they are most definitely not as natural as they seem.
Make The Better Choice
So now that you know what stevia is and how it is processed the next step is, understanding what kind of stevia you must avoid. Stevia is a natural sweetener and it is important to pick the right types of stevia to maximize your health benefits while consuming it.
How many of you have been to the store and are overwhelmed by how many different stevia products are on the shelves?
With the growing popularity of these natural sweeteners selecting the most appropriate version of the extract becomes a task.
So, is stevia a healthy alternative to sugar?
Stevia And Diabetes
The most popularly known health benefits of stevia are the regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure in the human body.
Just like tabletop sugar, stevia sweetens foods without affecting blood sugar levels. This is great news for diabetic patients.
I was amazed to learn that stevia is absorbed by the bacteria of your colon and not your bloodstream. This is exactly why it has no effect on your blood glucose levels unlike refined sugar.
A study published in 1986 suggests that consuming preparations of stevia every 6 hours over a period of 3 days can show a considerable effect on improving blood sugar levels.
Another animal study performed in 2005 in the Hormone and Metabolic Research Journal claims that stevioside:
- Decreases plasma-glucose concentrations
- Improves insulin sensitivity
- Delays the development of insulin resistance
A study evaluating the effects of the sweetening agent in stevia for type-1 and type-2 diabetes was published in the Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology Journal. The study showed that the type 1 diabetics group had a significant decrease in systolic blood pressure and glucose.
Stevia was well tolerated by diabetics without any side effects.
Stevia Helps Lower Blood Pressure
It is not new news that irregular blood pressure (BP) readings can be closely associated with heart disease, strokes and kidney failure. Maintaining an optimum blood pressure below 120 over 80 (120/80) is vital for the overall functioning of your body.
In a Chinese study of 106 patients, there was an 8% reduction in systolic blood pressure when taking 750mg of stevioside per day. The same patients saw a 14% decrease in diastolic blood pressure when taking the same amount per day.
Research has clearly suggested that replacing stevia with tabletop sugar can help reduce blood pressure among hypertensive patients.
It is thought that stevia has other components that help relax blood vessels and increase urination. This allows you to excrete excess sodium from your system and help regulate you blood pressure at better levels.
Some researchers have also suggested that stevioside may act by blocking calcium ion channels in cells. This data is consistent with the view that stevioside acts on arterial pressure and renal function as a calcium antagonist similar to the drug verapamil.
Several clinical trials both on animals and humans have resulted into the positive effects of stevia on blood pressure levels
- Intravenous injection of stevioside reduces blood pressure in hypertensive rats.
- Oral steviosides are well tolerated and can be considered as a supplementary or alternative therapy for patients suffering from hypertension.
Stevia Can Assist With Weight Loss
Yes, you read that correctly. Stevia can assist in weight loss…to a certain extent. Don’t think that you can consume a bunch of stevia and begin losing weight. Other factors such as how many carbs you should be eating, glycemic index, and exercise also play a role.
Stevia leaf extract contains zero calories and is about 300 times sweeter than cane sugar.
Try replacing table sugar with stevia. This can help you curb your sugar cravings and protect you from overindulging in sweets and desserts.
Mayo Clinic explains that refined stevia preparations such as Pure Via, Truvia, and others are considered non-nutritive sweeteners — they have virtually no calories. These products tend to appeal to people trying to lose weight.
But, remember there is no actual evidence that these products offer an advantage for weight loss over other artificial sweeteners.
We are referring to stevia the plant in this article, not refined stevia that undergoes many processes.
Even health professionals suggest the swap of table sugar for stevia is better and can promote weight loss.
“Refined, simple sugars are a leading cause of obesity in the U.S. and substituting other non-caloric sweeteners for table sugar can promote weight loss and maintenance.”
Does Stevia Cause Cancer?
When it comes to cancer prevention and stevia, it can be a little ambiguous. Studies published in various journals have shown:
- Anti-tumor and Anti-microbial effects of stevia in animal studies
- Inhibitory effect on the stage 2 carcinogenesis in mouse skin (that’s weird to say…mouse skin)
- Apoptosis (a process of killing damaged cells) inducing activity post stevia consumption
- Stevia is an ideal dietary supplement owing to various antioxidants in the leaf of the plants
Some researchers criticize the use of stevia based on a study performed by toxicologists at UCLA in 2008.
This study raised concerns about stevia contributing to cancer. The researchers noticed that some samples showed that steviosides other than Rebaudioside A caused genetic mutations, chromosome damage and DNA breakage.
Anything we eat should be done in moderation. This study did not find Rebaudioside A to be carcinogenic.
Critics argue that certain strains of stevia can mutate DNA and cause cancer as a result of the processes it undergoes, although research has not been forthcoming to prove this.
In fact, there have been studies linking pure stevia to anti-tumor activity in breast cancer.
Stevia And Oral Health
Did you know that using a mixture of stevia extract and water as a mouthwash could possibly help improve your oral health?
Bacteria in your mouth release certain acids that can damage your teeth and cause cavities.
Stevia can inhibit the reproduction and growth of these oral bacteria. It can help prevent you from mouth and gum disease.
Twenty volunteers in one study rinsed for 1 min with each sucrose or stevia extract solutions. After rinsing, plaque pH was measured.
After 5, 10, 15 and 30 minutes, the sucrose rinse produced a statistically significantly lower pH value compared to the stevia extracts.
This meant that more acid was formed with sucrose. The authors conclude that stevia extracts can be considered non acidogenic and therefore appropriate to support dental health.
Stevia Interaction With Medication
Are you currently taking medications and interested in beginning to consume more stevia?
Hold on just one minute…
What you need to do first is book an appointment with your healthcare physician before you jump into stevia’s world of health benefits.
If you are taking medications for diabetes make sure your physician closely monitors your blood glucose levels before consuming stevia.
Stevia as well as pills and insulin for diabetic patients may reduce your blood sugar to very low levels as opposed to optimum levels required for the normal functioning of the body. Remember I mentioned the word, insulinotropic earlier?
Although stevia doesn’t effect blood sugar levels, it can affect the production and activity of insulin. SO it is important to be aware of this.
Most of us are aware that both high and low blood pressure readings are of equal concern when it comes to evaluating your health.
Stevia can help reduce blood pressure. So while stevia consumption would greatly reduce blood pressure along with antihypertensive tablets it could also negate the effect of any medication used for treatment of lowering your blood pressure.
Stevia also interacts with lithium due to its diuretic properties. So if you are taking tablets containing lithium, stevia consumption can reduce your body’s ability to get rid of lithium which could lead to issues with your health.
As much as we all feel like a “pro” after browsing through the internet, it is important to consult with your doctor or qualified health practitioner on topics like this.
Consult your physician before consuming stevia to avoid and medical complications.
Final Thoughts On Stevia
In all of my articles I have stressed that you are what you eat. Moderation with anything is important to stay healthy and maintain your nutrition.
If it came down to Truvia vs stevia, I would pick pure stevia. Unprocessed foods are always healthier than processed foods. No doubt about it. Try and have stevia in its purest form if you wish to benefit from its health properties.
Stevia is a healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners and cane sugar. I don’t really eat too many sweets nor do I drink much coffee. If I were do drink coffee each morning, I would probably switch to stevia to sweeten it though.
While we need to wait for additional research to understand the long-term effects stevia has on our bodies, it’s much better than other alternative sweeteners currently on the market.
What is your experience with stevia? What do you think?