Have you heard about the all-natural sweetener called stevia? Seeing as it’s just about everywhere these days, we’re going to go ahead and assume that you have. But just in case, we’ll let you in on all the facts.
100 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar, stevia has been around for ages — we’re talking since ancient times when it was a popular ingredient used in medical treatments. Now, we know what you’re thinking: a sweetener used for medicinal purposes?
While we couldn’t agree more (it’s for sure a little strange), it’s true — stevia was used back in the day as a tonic for heart problems, digestive issues, and more. So with that in mind, the zero-calorie sweetener must be healthy, right?
Well, not exactly.
Turns out the beloved sugar substitute has experienced quite a few ups and downs with the FDA over the years. In fact, it was actually banned in 1991 due to reports stating that it could cause cancer. Obviously, stevia is back on the shelves, so it goes without saying that studies eventually refuted the claims, but it still makes you raise an eyebrow.
So, is stevia bad for you? What are the facts, and what does research tell us?
You have questions, and we have answers. Keep reading, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know.
First Things First. What Exactly Is Stevia?
A few hundred years ago, the indigenous people of South America got their sweet fix by snacking on the leaves of a local shrub. At the time, they really didn’t understand why the leaves of this plant tasted so good, but it did, and that’s all that mattered. Plus, after a little bit of experimenting, they realized the leaves had many other incredible uses, including providing treatment for burns, stomach issues, and colic.
Needless to say, the sweet shrub was a hot commodity back then.
Fast forward to 1905, when Westerners dubbed the coveted plant as Stevia rebaudiana and found that its sweetness came from tiny compounds (now called steviol glycosides) found within the leaves of the plant.
Through a tedious multi-step process, these glycosides can be delicately extracted to make the zero-calorie sweetener we all know and love today as stevia.
The active glycosides that can be extracted from the stevia leaf include:
Each of these extracted glycosides sits somewhere between 50 and 400 times sweeter than traditional table sugar. In other words, a little goes a long way, and you really don’t need much to sweeten your coffee.
Are There Any Benefits?
Stevia is a non-nutritive sweetener. Simply put, it has essentially no calories. So, if you’re trying to slim down a bit, this aspect may catch your eye.
However, to this day, research on the alternative sweetener is inconclusive, and the impact it has on your health may really boil down to the amount you consume. After all, too much of a good thing is not necessarily always a “good thing.”
That being said, when consumed in moderation, some of the potential benefits of using stevia include:
Benefit #1: May Lower Cholesterol Levels
Recent studies indicate that stevia consumption may lead to a significant reduction in “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels while increasing the “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
Benefit #2: May Support a Healthy Body Composition
Did you know that the U.S. adult obesity rate stands at a whopping 42.4 percent? This is really concerning — especially when you take into account obesity being associated with the leading causes of death in America.
While stevia is definitely no magical “quick fix” to weight loss or anything like that, it does contain no sugar and very few, if any, calories, so it can be a great tool to use as a part of a well-balanced diet.
Of course, moderation is key, but replacing your table sugar with stevia is a surefire way to reduce your calorie intake to support healthy body composition.
Benefit #3: May Promote Good Oral Health
Unlike table sugar, which promotes the growth of cavity-causing bacteria like Streptococcus mutans, stevia may help to reduce bacterial formation in the mouth, making it an excellent additive for toothpaste and mouthwash.
So, What’s So Bad About Stevia?
After reading those benefits, you’re probably ready to get your hands on some stevia, but pump the brakes for a quick sec — let’s talk about stevia’s dark side.
First, you should know that stevia is considered “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Now, this doesn’t apply to stevia leaf or crude stevia extracts, which don’t have the FDA’s stamp of approval for use in food just yet.
As mentioned a little earlier, there was some concern back in the day that the zero-calorie sweetener might increase the risk of cancer (based on animal studies), but after 10-plus years on the market, stevia is safe even by the meticulous watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) standards.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, many researchers warn that we don’t have enough evidence to fully understand how stevia affects the body. Plus, some studies have raised concerns about its effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems.
While more research is certainly needed, some of the potential side effects from using stevia include:
Side Effect #1: May Affect Fertility And Pregnancy
Before there was birth control, the indigenous people of South America had stevia.
As early as 1968, researchers found that stevia leaves significantly reduced fertility in female rats. However, a recent study found no significant impairment of pregnancies and births in rats that consumed the sweet leaf over an extended period of time.
So, does stevia affect fertility and pregnancy, or not?
Not directly, but stevia may interfere with reproduction-related hormones controlled by the endocrine system.
According to a 2016 study, researchers found that human sperm cells exposed to stevia experienced an increase in progesterone production. But while stevia boosts the production of this all-important hormone, it also blocks progesterone receptors. Progesterone is essential for reproductive health, including maintaining pregnancy, regulating the menstrual cycle, and fertility.
In fact, progesterone receptor antagonists are commonly used clinically as contraceptives and to terminate a pregnancy — so it makes sense that the ladies back in the day used the stevia plant as natural birth control.
Much more research is definitely needed, but it’s definitely something to think about.
Side Effect #2: May Cause Tummy Trouble
Since many stevia products contain sugar alcohols, they are notorious for causing digestive issues.
If you’re particularly sensitive to sugar alcohols, you may experience the following symptoms:
Side Effect #3: May Disrupt Gut Microbiome
A recent study shows that the natural sweetener may disrupt communications among gut bacteria, which could lead to many health issues. Scientists also found that in high concentrations, stevia may lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiome, meaning a not-too-good-time for the healthy microorganisms that live in your gut.
While the findings are certainly a bit concerning, the lead researcher of the study cautioned that additional experiments are needed before giving conclusive results. Until then, it might be a good idea to swap out your stevia for monk fruit sweetener!
So, is stevia bad for you?
We’ll be totally honest with you — we don’t 100% know, and anyone that tells you they do is lying.
At this time, there is so much research being done on the zero-calorie sweetener that it’s hard to know what’s been proven to be consistently true (keyword: consistently).
We do know, however, that stevia is FDA-approved and a GRAS ingredient, so with that in mind, we would say it’s generally safe. However, until more research is done, we’ll stick with monk fruit sweetener.
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