Stevia: Sweetener Friend or Foe?
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about Stevia - the newest sweetener on the market. It claims to be all-natural, calorie-free, carbohydrate-free, and have zero glycemic index. A product that tastes like sugar, but possesses none of the negative side effects of sugar – sounds too good to be true!
Naturally, I’m skeptical.
So many products in the marketplace make claims that aren’t always accurate, or omit some pretty important health facts. I’ve learned to ascertain the truth by doing my research before jumping on the latest hyped-up bandwagon.
What IS Stevia?
Originating from South America where they steeped it in hot water or other foods, stevia is a plant that has been used as a sweetener for centuries. Since then, european explorers have discovered its sweetening properties and isolated the stevioside compound in the leaves responsible for stevia's sweetness. This stevioside, refined from the stevia leaves and sometimes bound to other agents is what is now commonly sold as stevia in grocery stores and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. A few examples on the market today are Truvia®, Purevia® and Stevia In The Raw®.
Is Stevia Safe?
My mantra has always been, “The more a product is touched by man, the worse it is for you.” When something is processed to extract compounds or added to other compounds to provide bulk, in my opinion, it's no longer natural and it can't be considered the same entity.
In the case of stevia, I discovered that over the last few years, the FDA has turned down several requests to use stevia in foods. The agency cites a handful of studies suggesting that large amounts of stevia could be harmful.
- Reduced Fertility: One study showed that high doses reduced sperm production and might cause infertility in male rats.
- Reduced Infant Birth Weight: Another showed that when female hamsters were fed large amounts of a stevia derivative, they had smaller babies.
- Possible Carcinogen: Other studies indicated that stevia might be carcinogenic and might disrupt metabolism.
However, with this said, none of these possibilities has been verified in humans, and there has never been a test proving stevia to be toxic. Also important to mention - the quantities that you would need to consume to match the rats are far above the amounts any person would want to consume.
Stevia Health Benefits
Although the isolated steviosides chemical is still under investigation, rebiana, another chemical found in stevia, was placed on the FDA's GRAS (generally recognized as safe) listing in 2008 and can be used as a food ingredient. Rebiana/stevia products include: Good & Sweet, PureVia, Reb A, SweetLeaf Stevia Sweetener, Sun Crystals (which combines stevia and sugar), and Truvia.
Futher, unlike most other sweeteners, stevia actually has medicinal properties including a possible positive effect on:
- Cholesterol (Anti-inflammatory effect)
- Blood Glucose (though it's small effect)
- Sweet Food Cravings.
In fact, it’s been shown to reduce cravings for sweet foods, thus prompting users to cut back on their average sugar consumption.
What Does Stevia Taste Like?
I’m all for using foods that are safe and healthy, but is stevia tasty? I have experimented with several sweeteners over the years and have yet to find one that I can say actually replaces the taste of sugar.
Stevia has sort of a minty, bitter aftertaste that isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s a little different than sugar. If you’re baking with it, stevia may respond a bit differently than sugar and it's not right for glazing or melting.
I recommend using it in recipes where sugar is not the main ingredient and with foods that have lots of other flavors. When using it in cookies, for example, I’ll kick up the vanilla to mask the bitter aftertaste. Or with cheese cake, I’d add a bit of lemon.
The Bottom Line?
I've come across several respected doctors and experts who support the use of stevia in foods and claim that it’s a better alternative to the most popular sweetener currently on the market, Aspartame. In my opinion, the health benefits of Stevia outweigh the unproven chance of cancer and other reproductive problems. But then, I would suggest that you use stevia with caution.
So far, it appears that there are fewer negatives to using stevia than there are positives, but many foods that have been approved (or at least not banned) by the FDA are later revealed to cause some health risks that aren’t known until further study and testing. I feel good about using it in small doses and would recommend it as an alternative to sugar in select foods and recipes.