Is Stevia Good for You?

Stevia sweetener, which is an artificial, low-calorie alternative to regular sugar, is made from stevia plant extract. Cutting down on sugar can lower your overall calorie intake and help you lose weight or fight diseases like Type 2 diabetes.

Stevia improves health by lowering sugar and calorie intake. (Image: nadisja/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Stevia is natural, safe for consumption and may even help you lose weight by lowering your calorie and sugar intake.

Origins of Stevia

Many artificial sweeteners are man-made, but stevia is taken directly from the stevia plant, which originated in South America in Paraguay and Brazil. It's a small shrub that's been used as a sweetener by indigenous peoples before it was widely adapted as a product in the rest of the world.

While the stevia leaf was originally used as a sweetener for beverages like tea and for food, the product that's commonly consumed is called steviol glycosides. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has labeled steviol glycosides as generally recognized as safe, which means that it doesn't have to be approved by the FDA before it can be used as a food additive. To receive the label "generally recognized as safe," a product must pass expert scrutiny for its intended use to insure its safety.

On the other hand, the leaf of the stevia plant and crude stevia extracts are not generally recognized as safe. That doesn't necessarily mean that other parts of the plant are unsafe, but they haven't undergone testing and scrutiny by the FDA. To extract the glycosides from the stevia plant, dried stevia leaves are steeped in water.

Then, they're filtered to remove any tiny particles. They undergo an active carbon treatment that removes organic residues. After that, an ion exchange treatment removes minerals. The glycosides are collected into a resin and dried, creating stevia extract. The end product is 250 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose, which is table sugar.

Consuming Steviol Glycosides

Even though artificial sweeteners have garnered some negative press, stevia sweetener is incredibly safe for consumption. According to a May 2015 essay published in Nutrition Today, you'd need to eat about 40 small packets of stevia per day to reach the limit of the acceptable daily intake.

The acceptable daily intake is the limit at which you can consume something daily for your entire life. Anything beyond the acceptable daily intake would be considered unhealthy.

In other words, it's extremely difficult to eat too much stevia. It's so potent that you only need a small amount to add sweetness to your food or drinks. Stevia is available in packets that you can put in your own food, but it's also in beverages like Gatorade and some sodas.

Companies are making stevia in various forms for consumption. For example, a company called SweetLeaf makes stevia crystals, flavored stevia liquid, liquid drops for water or other beverages, stevia extract for baking, stevia concentrate and even stevia syrup. The sweetener is versatile and safe, making it an ideal sugar substitute.

Health Effects of Sugar Intake

Sugar has been blamed for a range of health problems, including heart disease and obesity. It's difficult to point to sugar as the sole perpetrator when it comes to the obesity crisis, since excess calorie intake is ultimately what leads to weight gain.

A March 2015 study published in JAMA explains that obesity rates continue to rise, but average sugar intake isn't increasing. That means there are other factors leading to the obesity crisis other than sugar.

However, the same study explains that those who eat diets higher in sugar tend to suffer from metabolic disease. Sugar intake can be detrimental even if you're not overweight. Excess sugar intake is directly linked to Type 2 diabetes, regardless of weight.

Higher sugar intake can contribute to heart disease. A 2014 study published in JAMA found that people who ate between 17 and 21 percent of their daily total calories from sugar were more likely to die of heart disease. Eating too much sugar can raise your blood pressure and cause inflammation in your blood vessels, leading to plaque buildup.

The Sugar Epidemic

In modern diets, most sugars come from sports drinks and sweetened beverages like soda. After that, grain-based desserts like cookies and cake take second place. After that, fruit juice and dairy desserts like ice cream are on the list.

There are many forms of sugar in today's diet. Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that the average American consumes about 20 tablespoons of sugar per day, which is well above the American Heart Association's recommended intake of 6 teaspoons per day. Excess sugar intake increases the number of calories in your diet. One gram of carbohydrates has four calories, so each additional gram of sugar you consume during the day adds four calories.

While sugar may not be the sole cause of the obesity crisis sweeping the world, it's certainly a contributing factor. A September 2015 article published in Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences explains that sugar influences weight gain, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. It's also not clear if sugar consumed in liquid or solid food is more damaging.

Part of the reason why sugar is so unhealthy is the addictive effect it has. A July 2018 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that in animal studies, sugar caused drug-like effects. The animals who ate sugar were more likely to binge, crave and experience withdrawal symptoms from sugar.

The addictive effect of sugar is also seen in humans, according to the study. Part of the problem with sugar consumption may come from a dependence on sugar itself, which causes more sugar to be consumed.

Using Stevia to Reduce Sugar

A simple remedy to the problem of excess sugar intake is to eat less sugar. However, it's not that simple. When you cut sugar out of your diet you'll likely have cravings. You might not want to give up some of your favorite baked goods, soft drinks or candies. Artificial sweeteners like stevia help you get over that hurdle.

With its potent sweetening power, stevia can trick your mind into thinking that you're eating sugar. It retains most of the sweet flavor that sugar has without the added calories. By adding stevia to some of your favorite sweets, you can slowly cut your calorie count as you scale back on the sugar. It's a way to ween yourself off sugar.

Replacing real sugar with artificial sweeteners helps in theory, but is more complicated than it seems. A July 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal shows that replacing regular, sweetened beverages with artificially sweetened beverages didn't help with Type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, a September 2015 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Obesity found that artificial sweeteners could help lower body weight when used as a replacement for sugar. This makes sense, because the total calorie count of food goes down when you replace sugar with a lower-calorie option.

Stevia and Weight Loss

If you're overweight or obese, you're more at risk for dangerous health problems than someone of normal weight. Your risk for high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, liver disease and even mental health problems like depression goes up when you're overweight.

These are serious health problems that can effect your quality of life and longevity. Losing weight can help reverse these problems, and stevia can help. By replacing sugar with a zero-calorie sweetener you're cutting calories from your diet. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in.

For example, assume you drink a soda every day. One 12-ounce can of a leading soda brand contains 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar. Drinking one per day for a week totals 980 calories added to your diet. One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. Cutting the added calories from the sugar in soda out of your diet could significantly impact your calorie intake over time and help you lose weight.

There are some potential health benefits of steviol glycosides that deserve further research. While it's not certain, steviol glycosides might help with diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney problems and bowel disease. The leaves can also help with gum and dental health when chewed because they have antiseptic properties.

More research is needed to determine the specific health benefits of steviol glycosides and the plant itself. Most of the benefits seem to be tied to the fact that stevia helps you consume less sugar. However, stevia and other artificial sweeteners have their fair share of health problems.

Drawbacks of Artificial Sweeteners

The only problem that comes from using artificial sweeteners is the taste of sugar. The taste is addictive, which means that you may not end up weening yourself off sugar. In fact, with the realization that the sugar you're consuming won't contribute to weight gain, it's possible that you begin to eat more.

In this way, stevia won't help you solve your problems. If your goal is to reduce sugar intake, the first step should be towards removing sugary food from your diet. An April 2017 review published in Clinical Nutrition ESPEN argues that lowering consumption of any artificial sweetener is beneficial.

Stevia is one of the safest sweeteners since it's made from a real plant, not artificially created. Some of the truly artificial sweeteners might have bad side effects, notes an article from the American Heart Association. Specifically, artificial sweeteners can increase your risk for cardiovascular events like a stroke. The article notes that this evidence is still emerging, but it's enough to make you question using sweeteners.

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