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Stevia – The Safe and Natural Sweetener

January 10, 2009 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

If you’ve gone shopping lately and looked around the sweetener section, you may have seen a few new faces on the block. Products like Truvia and ZSweet are popping up all over the country and beyond. But what are they really? And are they really safe?

The Sour Side of Sweetness

Artificial sweeteners have been a regular part of the Standard American Diet for many years. These calorie-free sweeteners have names like NutraSweet, Sweet’N Low and Splenda. The supposed upside of these sweetening agents is that they’re virtually calorie-free, safe for diabetics and don’t promote weight-gain. All of these products have also been safety approved by the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration). The trouble is, if we dig a little deeper, the reality of these products don’t appear quite so appetizing.

First let’s take a look at some of the adverse effects that have been reported with some of the most popular non-nutritive sweeteners:

SweetenerAcesulfame K (Ace-K or Sunett) - This sweetener contains small amounts of a substance called methylene chloride. It is known that long-term exposure to this substance can cause a variety of health consequences, such as: cancer, confusion, depression, headaches, kidney and liver damage and visual problems. So naturally, there is some concern about frequent usage of this sugar substitute.

Aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal) - This is perhaps the most controversial of all artificial sweeteners. One physician, Dr. H.J. Roberts, noted that many of the complaints made to the FDA (about food additives) had to do with aspartame. The symptoms attributed to it are extremely broad. They include: dizziness, headaches, joint pain, memory and mood disturbances, nausea, changes in eyesight and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). And that may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) - Concerns have been raised about its role as a possible carcinogen (a cancer causing agent). It has also been associated with allergic reactions, such as headaches, breathing problems, stomach distress and skin eruptions.

Sugar Alcohols (Erythritol, Maltitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol) - Sugar alcohols are actually natural sweeteners. But, higher dosages are notorious for causing stomach problems. It’s generally recommended that you use them cautiously and sparingly. In smaller dosages, they appear to be relatively safe.

Sucralose (Splenda) - Many people associate sucralose as being “natural” or close to it. The reason is that it’s partially made with sugar. But it also contains chlorine, which is a known carcinogen. There have been reports of skin and stomach issues relating to sucralose use. In addition, some incidents of breathing problems, coughs, heart issues (such as irregular heartbeats) and mood swings may also be associated with this approved sweetener.

A Bad Promotion

One of the biggest controversies to emerge over the past few years is whether artificial sweeteners may in fact promote weight gain. That’s right, promote it. How could this be? Most of these sweeteners are either calorie-free or very low in calories. They’re certainly much lower in calories than sugar or high fructose corn syrup. And what’s more, they’ve been promoted for many years as a way of helping to manage weight!

A study from back in 2004 put forth a surprising observation. It turns out that sugar substitutes may negatively impact the brain’s ability to count calories and perceive sweetness. Instead of satisfying our desire for a little something sweet, these sweeteners may actually drive us to eat more sugary foods and drinks.

In 2008, another study was published that further supported this hypothesis. In the 2008 study out of Purdue University, a group rats was fed either sugar sweetened yogurt or artificially sweetened (saccharin) yogurt. After the rats were fed their respective yogurts, the researchers observed their eating habits. This is what they noted:

  • The rats that ate the artificial sweetener consumed more calories and gained more weight and body fat.
  • These same rats kept overeating after their exposure to saccharin. In other words, it appeared that their appetite was stimulated.
  • Another interesting observation made was that the saccharin fed rats seemed to develop a slower metabolism. A slow metabolism allows for fewer calories to be burned. This could account for part of the weight gain found in the artificially sweetened rats.

As a side note, a hugely influential fellow blogger, Jimmy Moore, has recently found weight loss success by reducing the quantities of artificial sweeteners in his diet. His story is really fascinating and definitely worth exploring.

SteviaStevia to the Rescue?

This past year has been a very significant year for a little Paraguayan plant. Stevia is a no-calorie, all natural sweetener taken from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It’s been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for over 200 years – mainly in South America. It has also been commercially available as a sweetener in Japan for over 30 years.

The US has been slower to accept this herbal sweetener. For more than a decade, stevia has been allowed to be sold as a “dietary supplement”, but not as a food additive nor was it permitted in foods. The FDA didn’t grant stevia a seal of safety because it wanted to see more scientific proof. In theory, this sounds like a reasonable request by the FDA. The problem is that scientific research is expensive and stevia is a natural substance. Therefore, you can’t patent it nor can you profit from investment in it as you can with an artificial sweetener.

Thankfully, the consumer demand for stevia has been so strong and so steady that big corporations recently began to show an interest in the leaves of this humble plant. Industry giants like Coca Cola and Cargill and PepsiCo both announced that they intended to invest in new stevia products. With such strong financially backing, scientific testing became a real possibility. The results of those tests have led the FDA to finally allow stevia to be sold as a stand alone sweetener and included in lower-calorie foods and drinks.

Here are some highlights from the recent safety studies:

  1. Stevia was found to be non-toxic, even when consumed at dosages much higher than would normally be used.
  2. The safety evaluations also found that stevia has no apparent effect on reproductive health or on the growth and development of offspring (rats, in this case).
  3. Of particular interest is the fact that the stevia extract did not appear to have any significant effect on blood pressure. Some prior research had shown that certain stevia extracts may actually lower blood pressure. This may be a good thing for some, but it would not be desirable for a mass marketed sweetener.
  4. Stevia did not appear to affect blood sugar levels, not even in type 2 diabetics. Some stevia extracts may slightly lower blood sugar.
  5. In the human leg of the testing, the dosage used was approximately 29 packets. This is more than most people will likely use in the course of the day, which is a further testament to its safety in a real world setting.

The exact stevia extract used in this batch of safety testing is sold under the product name Truvia.

Other countries are also becoming more comfortable with the thought of stevia as a safe sugar alternative. Earlier this year, Australia approved it’s use in beverages and foods.

In addition to the official governmental approvals, many alternative health doctors have also given stevia their stamp of approval. Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Ray Sahelian are two well regarded doctors who attest to its safety.

Your Body, Your Science Experiment

So what are the main differences between stevia and other sugar alternatives? For me it really comes down to a few key points. Firstly, stevia has a long history of safe, traditional use. In fact, there’s a considerable amount of research that indicates that stevia may even confer health benefits, as opposed to health risks. Secondly, I tend to prefer natural options. I think that ancient plants are more likely to be compatible with our bodies than newly invented chemicals that are cooked up in laboratory by scientists who hope to profit from their new inventions.

But, I want to make one thing clear. The bottom line is how any given substance affects you as an individual. If you try something natural, such as stevia, and you notice a negative effect, stop taking it. Just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for you.

I personally use stevia in moderation – about two packets a day. I haven’t noticed any ill effects while using it (for several years now). Even so, I still try to limit my amount of sweets. As as result, I simply don’t crave very sweet drinks or foods anymore, which I believe is a sign of good health. That’s what works for me. I wish you all the same good health, no matter which road to sweetness you decide to take.

Be well!

JP

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10 Comments to “Stevia – The Safe and Natural Sweetener”

  1. Briana Adams Says:

    JP, thank you for this informative article! Personally, due to severe inflammation as a child, I had to get off sugar completely and was only allowed to have stevia to sweeten my foods until I got well. I appreciate that it is a natural alternative, especially for people with health concerns, who desperately need it.

    I actually now work for Zsweet, the other natural sugar substitute you mentioned and I wanted to highlight that Zsweet is also a zero calorie option that is safe for people with diabetes, celiac disease, candida, obesity or gastric bypass patients.

    Many people contact us and they love stevia, but because taste is subjective, other people don’t care for it and would like an alternative, so I’m happy that they also have Zsweet as another natural option since there are really aren’t any others available yet.

    Zsweet tastes a lot like plain sugar and can be used in baking.

    I thought your readers might like to know.

    Thank you for shining a light on this topic for individuals searching for natural choices.

  2. JP Says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience with the rest of us, Briana.

    Be well!

    JP

  3. Lynne Says:

    thank you for a very informative article on low calorie sweeteners and stevia. I took a copy to my last TOPS meeting and everyone found it very informative. You answered some questions that had come up in previous meetings – what sweetener to use, and with what risks. Thanks! :)

  4. JP Says:

    Thanks, Lynne! :)

    I’m happy to know the info. was of use!

    Be well!

    JP

  5. Debbie Says:

    Hi, I am totally off all sugar including fake sugar substitues. I was a sugar addict (had no willpower to turn away from cake, cookies, donuts) until I quit sugar and sugar subtitutes all together. That worked wonders – no more cravings.

    My husband still ate lots of fake sugar (in his ice tea mix) so I wanted to get him healthier so I got him some unsweetened ice tea mix and some stevia. He liked the taste but then experienced a bad stomach ache. He didn’t think it was from the stevia but the next time he drank the ice tea the same thing happened. I thought that was strange because it’s just an herb. I am disappointed about that reaction he had.

  6. JP Says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s negative reaction, Debbie.

    Which stevia product did he try? It’s possible that another ingredient in the product could be responsible for the adverse reaction.

    Be well!

    JP

  7. Rich Says:

    I’ve been using Stevia since my Chiropractor told me about it over 3 years ago. I’ve used the liquid but it’s not as convenient as packets. I use primarily Stevia in the RAW and find it to be better, about 1/3 to 1/2 a packet is all it takes in a Tea or Coffee. Though TruVia is not bad I find it more expensive to use, I use 1 full packet or more for approx. the same effect.

  8. Jared Says:

    Recently I tried out a new whey protein mix and one of the ingredients was stevia. Quickly I realized consuming this mix was causing me to experience bad stomach aches. After searching the internet for information I found that Stevia was the culprit. Other people have experienced the same reaction to consuming Stevia and it looks like Debbie’s husband is one of them. Needless to say i won’t be buying the protein mix again. From now on I’m sticking to unsweetened/unflavoured protein mix. It tastes bad but you get used to it.

  9. Virginia Lobo Says:

    I am interested in natural organic sweeteners like agave syrup for my ten year old daughter. I am against exploiting animals. I quit sugar in my coffee and tea. I first started drinking diet coke. The taste of sugar hides all other tastes from food or drinks. I find quitting sugar is something we will all have to do sooner or later. Sugar interferes with proteins’ metabolism. There are studies which relate sugar consumption to cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many more western world illnesses.

  10. JP Says:

    Hi, Virginia.

    I agree with many of your statements. However, I wouldn’t recommend agave syrup as an alternative to sugar. Here’s why:

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/185/agave-danger/

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/925/fructose-confusion/

    http://www.healthyfellow.com/874/double-chocolate-brownies/ <— recipe example that’s agave and no sugar added.

    Be well!

    JP

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