Ever since it hit the U.S. market in 2008, the artificial non-caloric sweetener Stevia has enjoyed skyrocketing sales in recent years. In 2018, the number of new products using stevia grew by 31 percent. That compares to an 11 percent increase in 2017 meaning the growth rate of this sweetener nearly tripled in one year. This ‘natural’ sugar has been welcomed with much enthusiasm thanks to its zero calories and the fact it’s about 300 times sweeter than sugar.
And like all consumers who use non-caloric sugar substitutes primarily to aid weight loss or for diabetes management, they have questions. These questions include how safe is stevia, is it considered a natural or artificial sweetener, how can it be used, and what exactly is stevia anyway?
Here are answers to these questions starting with what is stevia?
Stevia: What is it?
Stevia comes from a small perennial shrub native to Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina called S rebaudiana Bertoni. The leaves of the plant have been used for centuries in medicine and to sweeten drinks such as mate. However, the vast majority of diet soft drinks are sweetened with low- or no-calorie sweeteners other than stevia. Since stevia has a slightly bitter taste, it is often combined with sugar or other sweeteners like sugar alcohols and fructose in foods such as dairy-based ice cream, frozen yogurt, granola bars, baked goods, salad dressings, desserts, and meal replacements.
Stevia is sold as a liquid (Truvia Nectar) or powder tabletop sweetener (Pure Via) in many grocery stores, specialty food stores, and pharmacies. Truvia Nectar is a liquid stevia sweetener blend with honey that has 50 percent fewer calories per serving than full-calorie honey and is designed to be used in the same way you’d use honey. Pure Via is the powder form of Stevia often sold in the individual sweetener packets to sweeten coffee, iced tea, cereals, and other foods or beverages.
Is stevia natural or not?
There are several stevia sweetener products that claim to be ‘natural.” Critics of the sweetener have maintained that while stevia comes from a plant, it’s extracted and purified into a powder form, making it less than ‘natural.” The extraction process involves steeping the dried leaves of the plant in hot water, like tea, and then separating and purifying the sweet-tasting steviol glycosides. But, studies have found that steviol glycosides from the stevia plant are not changed during the extraction and purification process. While the combination of the steviol glycosides differs from that found in the leaves, the compounds that are extracted remain unchanged which essentially makes it a natural ingredient.
Is stevia safe?
Bottom line non-caloric sweeteners, whether natural or artificially made, need to pass safety tests before being added to foods and beverages. As far as stevia’s safety record, it is a safe non-caloric sweetener as the steviol glycosides are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), which is a regulatory review process category used by the FDA. GRAS requires expert consensus that a food ingredient is safe for its intended use. It has also been determined that stevia can safely be used by children and pregnant women. However, the American Heart Association advises against children regularly consuming beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners and instead recommends water and other unsweetened beverages such as plain milk.
Like with any food or beverage, moderate use of non-caloric foods and beverages should be followed. It is best to consume most foods and beverages without ‘natural’ or artificial sugar sweeteners and therefore, only resort to using sugar substitutes such as stevia, on a moderate basis.
How does stevia affect the gut microbiome?
Your gut microbiome is composed of microbes that live in your intestinal tract that have been found as potentially significant contributors to health. Currently, no standards exist to define a healthy human microbiome. What is known is that there are significant differences among microbiome profiles of different people and research has shown that the gut microbiome can quickly respond to normal changes in diet.
A 2019 study found no conclusive evidence that low-calorie sweeteners negatively impact gut microbiome which would also include stevia as part of this research.
Does stevia help with weight loss or weight maintenance?
The refined stevia preparations which go by the names Pure Via and Truvia, are considered nonnutritive sweeteners – they have virtually no calories – and so may appeal to people trying to lose weight. But there’s no evidence that they offer an advantage for weight loss or maintenance over other nonnutritive sweeteners. In addition, these highly refined stevia extracts may cause mild side effects, such as nausea or a feeling of fullness because they are often used in conjunction with sugar alcohols. The most common sugar alcohol they may be mixed with is erythritol, which can cause gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea in some people.
Remember, while sugar substitutes like stevia products, may help with weight management, they are not a magic bullet and should be used in moderation. If you eat too many sugar-free foods, you can still gain weight if these foods have other ingredients that contain calories.
Overall, commercial stevia sweeteners sold in the U.S. appear to be a safe and consumer-accepted sugar substitute for use in baking and in a wide range of foods and beverages. Again, when used in moderation, it likely can be used safely by most individuals.
For anyone interested in using stevia as an ingredient in baking or cooking, here are examples of the sugar-to-stevia conversion:
- 1 teaspoon sugar = ½ stevia packet = 5 drops liquid stevia
- ½ cup sugar = 12 stevia packets = 1 teaspoon liquid stevia
- 1 cup sugar = 24 stevia packets = 2 teaspoons liquid stevia
*Ratios may vary by manufacturer