Stevia is a natural zero-calorie sweetener derived from the plant Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni). It’s roughly 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar and has been marketed to help manage diabetes and support weight loss goals. Stevia sweeteners are often marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar and may even have several health benefits! However, there may also be some concerns around its safety in individuals who may be highly sensitive to its effects. Before we dive into this topic, though, allow me to introduce myself!
My name is Tony Stephan and I’m a dietitian business coach. I help RDs make more IMPACT and more INCOME through nutrition coaching. However, before I became a dietitian business coach, I was a dietitian nutrition coach just like you. I served thousands of nutrition coaching clients over a time span of 12 years. My successful nutrition coaching business is what led me to where I am today. Now, let me share with you some of the history, proposed health benefits, and potential risks regarding stevia sweeteners.
History & Background
The Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) plant is native to South America and has been around for hundreds of years. The leaves of this plant were historically used in South America to sweeten beverages or to chew on because of their intensely sweet taste. They were also dried and used for medicinal purposes.
FoodInsight.org is a nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to communicate science-based information about nutrition and food safety. According to their studies, stevia is made by extracting steviol glycosides from the stevia plant leaves. These glycosides are processed and purified to improve its flavor.
Raw forms of stevia plant extract are not currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to the lack of research. Therefore, commercial stevia sweeteners sold in the United States are somewhat processed and may vary in quality. While the stevia plant is not new and processed foods are not necessarily “bad”, some consumers may consider stevia sweeteners to be relatively new in the U.S.
Different Forms of Stevia Sweeteners
Stevia can be found in several different varieties. It depends on the processing method and the presence of other non-nutritive sweeteners or sugar alcohols. As an example, the stevia products sold in grocery stores don’t contain the whole stevia leaf. Instead, products such as Truvia and Stevia in the Raw contain refined stevia leaf extract also known as Reb-A (or rebaudioside A). They’re usually blended with other sweeteners and sugar alcohols, such as erythritol. Then they are purified to have an even sweeter taste.
There are “pure extracts” that can be found as liquids and powders. Compared to the more processed forms of stevia sweeteners, “pure extracts” aren’t combined with sugar alcohols and other non-nutritive sweeteners. These are typically sold as dietary supplements.
Are There Benefits To Using Stevia Sweeteners?
There have been studies showing that stevia may help people with diabetes keep their blood sugars balanced. There was a study done in 2010 that found stevia lowered glucose and insulin levels. This study also showed people still experienced fullness and satisfaction with stevia use.
Another study showed stevia use was associated with an improved lipid profile. Specifically, LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and total cholesterol had decreased with consistent use of stevia leaf powder.
If non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia are used in place of table sugar, it may also support weight loss goals by contributing to a calorie deficit!
Are There Risks to Using Stevia Sweeteners?
There is some concern that the raw stevia plant may be harmful for kidney and heart health. It may also lower blood sugar to dangerously low levels. This would be especially concerning for individuals who take blood sugar lowering meds! However, this has not been observed with the use of stevia sweeteners as sold in grocery stores.
While stevia has been shown in human studies to have positive effects on blood glucose and insulin levels, certain forms of stevia combined with sugars may add up and contribute to their total intake of carbohydrates. One example of this is Stevia in the Raw which contains Reb-A (refined stevia) and dextrose.
There was also a study done in 2019 that reported a possible link between stevia (and other non-nutritive sweeteners) and an imbalance of the intestinal flora. But more research needs to be done.
The Bottom Line – Weighing Potential Risks vs Benefits
There have been no safety concerns reported with the long-term use of stevia sweeteners as sold in the U.S. However, those who are sensitive to sugar alcohols may experience bloating, gas, and diarrhea. When discussing this with clients, the safety, potential side effects, cost, and taste should be discussed.
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