When you're looking for a sweetener with no calories and no chemicals, stevia may be the answer. Products made with stevia have been steadily appearing on grocery-store shelves, many of them in the form of beverages from some well-known companies.
Many popular beverage manufacturers, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have marketed drinks with stevia. As demand increases, other producers are also coming out with their own versions. Stevia is attractive because it comes from a plant and sweetens without the calories of sugar.
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Drinks with stevia are a little harder to find than those with other nonnutritive sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose. Some of your choices include Coca-Cola Life, Bai and Starbucks Refreshers.
What Is Stevia?
A plant native to Paraguay in South America, stevia has been used as a sweetener for more than 200 years. In the past, people chewed the leaves as a sweet treat, used it to mask the unpleasant flavor of medicines or added it to drinks.
Only since 2008 has stevia been an approved ingredient for use in commercial products in the United States, and since then it has become an official low-calorie ingredient in hundreds of manufactured products.
Stevia Compared to Sugar
A paper published in Current Pharmaceutical Design in 2017 notes that stevia contains several compounds — stevioside, rebaudioside, steviolbioside, and isosteviol — that are responsible for the plant's sweet taste. Stevia is, on average, about 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
A paper in Today's Dietitian, published in June 2017, suggests that consumers who are looking for products with stevia read ingredient labels and look for one of the following:
- Stevia leaf extract
- Stevia extract
- Rebaudioside A
- Steviol glycosides
Safety of Stevia
The paper in Current Pharmaceutical Design affirms that stevia is not mutagenic or carcinogenic. The researchers note that some of the compounds in stevia even have therapeutic effects against diabetes, hypertension, inflammation, obesity, cystic fibrosis and tooth decay.
The European Food Safety Authority and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives affirm that stevia is safe for adults and children, including women who are pregnant or nursing. A paper published in May 2015 in the journal Nutrition Today paper explains that stevia has an Acceptable Daily Intake of 4 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.
The acceptable daily intake is the amount of a substance that a person can consume daily, without any appreciable harm to health. A 150-pound person could safely consume about 40 small tabletop packets of stevia every day without risking any sort of harm.
The article in Today's Dietitian does note that the amounts of stevia in products aren't listed on labels. Despite this, it would be exceptionally unlikely for anyone to exceed the ADI by consuming drinks with stevia, even if you ate foods with the sweetener too.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has deemed steviol glycosides, which are used as sweeteners in foods and beverages, as GRAS, or "generally recognized as safe." The use of stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not considered GRAS, however, and the FDA hasn't approved their use in food or beverages.
Drinks With Stevia
Pepsi and Coca-Cola are among the major manufacturers that have launched drinks containing stevia, but with only limited availability. It turns out, stevia has a bitter aftertaste that people don't always enjoy. The best way to mitigate this bitterness is with the addition of other sweeteners, including sucrose (sugar) or sugar alcohols like erythritol.
Coca-Cola Life is sweetened with a blend of cane sugar and stevia leaf extract, so it has 35-percent fewer calories and less sugar than traditional Coke, but a flavor people enjoy.
Vitamin Water Zero, also made by the Coca-Cola company, contains stevia extract along with erythritol to sweeten the product with no calories. Other products with stevia from the Coca-Cola company include Fuze Meyer Lemon Black Tea and Blue Sky Zero Sugar Cola.
Bai products, including Super Teas, antioxidant infusions, Bai Bubbles and coconut water antioxidant infusions (CocoFusion) are sweetened with stevia. Soda, energy drinks and tea produced by the company Zevia are also sweetened with stevia. Flavors include traditional cola, root beer and fruit options.
Pepsico offers a stevia/sugar-sweetened product call Pepsi True. This cola has 30-percent less sugar than original Pepsi and no artificial sweeteners — just stevia and cane sugar. But, Pepsi True has very limited availability.
Stevia can be added to hot and cold beverages. You can add packets of stevia (sold as Truvia) to sweeten tea, coffee or other drinks.
Weight Loss and Stevia
While consuming products made with stevia can decrease your overall sugar intake, evidence doesn't show that it has any substantial influence on a person's total daily energy intake.
Research in the International Journal of Obesity, published in March 2017, found that consumption of calorie-free beverages sweetened with nonnutritive sweeteners, such as monk fruit, aspartame, sucralose and stevia, had minimal influence on the participants' total calories consumed.
Glucose Control and Stevia
Research isn't conclusive on stevia's effect on the blood sugar levels of diabetics. However, a promising study published in Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology in the April-June 2016 issue found that stevia can elevate insulin levels in rats, having beneficial hyperglycemic effects. Researchers attribute this partly to stevia's antioxidant properties.
But, according to the 2017 International Journal of Obesity study, the drinks made with nonnutritive sweeteners didn't markedly change long-term blood sugar or insulin levels when compared to sugar-sweetened beverages. Yes, sugar did immediately spike participants' blood sugar levels more so than stevia — but the blood sugar levels of all participants, whether they consumed sugar or nonnutritive sweeteners, were not elevated three hours post-consumption.
- Zevia: "Products"
- Coca-Cola: "What Coca-Cola Products have Stevia in Them?"
- Bai: "Products"
- Pepsico: "Pepsi True"
- Nutrition Today: "Stevia, Nature’s Zero-Calorie Sustainable Sweetener"
- Current Pharmaceutical Design: "A Review on the Pharmacology and Toxicology of Steviol Glycosides Extracted from Stevia Rebaudiana"
- International Journal of Obesity: "Effects of Aspartame-, Monk Fruit-, Stevia- and Sucrose-sweetened Beverages on Postprandial Glucose, Insulin and Energy Intake"
- Today's Dietitian: "Stevia's Splendor"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Has Stevia Been Approved by FDA to Be Used as a Sweetener?"
- Coca-Cola Company: "Vitamin Water Zero"
- Diabetes.co.uk: "Stevia"
- Avicenna Journal of Medical BioTechnology: "Hypoglycemic Effect of Aquatic Extract of Stevia in Pancreas of Diabetic Rats: PPARγ-dependent Regulation or Antioxidant Potential"
- European Food Safety Authority: "Sweeteners"
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: "87th Meeting"