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April 4, 2023
Are Stevia Sweeteners Bad for You? A Registered Dietitian Weighs In
If you want a treat that’s sweet as sugar (without the actual sugar part) stevia is a natural low-calorie alternative. It comes from a South American plant called Stevia rebaudiana and tastes 250-300 times sweeter than sugar (1, 2).
Stevia has been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. Early research has linked stevia to health benefits like lower blood sugar, decreased risk of cavities, and even the potential to help fight cancer (3, 4, 5).
However, there are two main types of stevia, and they are far from nutritionally equal. First, there is natural, raw stevia leaf extract. Then there is the stevia that is heavily processed and mixed with filler. The latter comes with downsides for your health.
In this blog, we’re breaking down the truth about each type of stevia–and why we use pure, raw stevia in our products here at NativePath.
Processed Stevia vs. Stevia Leaf Extract
Stevia leaf extract is as pure as it gets: its stevia leaf and nothing else. Processed stevia, on the other hand, includes filler ingredients like sugar alcohols and other lab-created artificial sweeteners. Here are some key differences between the two…
Processed Stevia & Stevia Blends
Processed stevia, which you might find at a restaurant table or at the grocery store, are generally stevia blends. They include additional sweeteners, though the brand’s advertising might only mention stevia on the label.
Processed stevia is usually based on a refined stevia extract, which is pulled from the leaf via a chemical-heavy alcohol filtering process (6). Once the extract is dried, it’s mixed with ingredients such as maltodextrin, erythritol, or sucralose (7).
Popular brands of processed stevia, including Truvia, Pyure, and Stevia In The Raw, are blends. Take Splenda Stevia for example. The nutrition information for Splenda Stevia (despite being marketed as simply a stevia product) notes that it also contains erythritol, an artificial sweetener.
These filler ingredients come with possible health risks. Take sucralose, for instance. This artificial sweetener is linked to questions about whether it’s safe in the long term. And despite its link to real sugar, it’s actually created in a lab…
Registered Dietitian, Amy S. Margulies, goes on to explain that, “Sucralose is created from real sugar.. This provides you with a less artificial taste than the other sweeteners, but it is not exactly natural. Sucralose is chemically altered to be 600 times sweeter than real sugar, with almost no calories.”
However, those potential perks come with risk. Margulies explains: “There are rumors out there that sucralose may stimulate your appetite, may reduce your GI system's good bacteria in half, and lastly, increase inflammation in your body, possibly lead to obesity and diabetes...even though your reason for consuming Splenda is to avoid or manage all of that in the first place.”.
All that to say, more research is still needed. What we do know is that sucralose has been linked to potential problems with gut health, insulin sensitivity, and energy levels (8, 9). It’s also dangerous to bake with. Research has found that at higher temperatures, Splenda breaks down and creates a dangerous, cancer-causing substance (10, 11, 12, 13).
What About Other Stevia Fillers?
Erythritol, another common filler, can cause side effects like digestive issues, bloating, nausea, headaches, and stomach cramps. More concerning, is a new study that points to a possible link between erythritol and risk of heart health issues, including heart attack and stroke. The study also found that erythritol may make it easier for blood to clot, which may play a part in raising risks (14).
Stevia Leaf Extract: A Healthier Option
Your healthiest move is to stay away from processed stevia, blends, and other artificial sweeteners. Opt for pure, natural stevia leaf extract that comes straight from its wild source.
“When you're looking at sugar substitutes, you'll typically want to avoid those that are completely artificial or chemically sourced,” says Dan Gallagher, Registered Dietitian at Aegle Nutrition. “Stevia is one that's often recommended as being naturally sourced and therefore a little healthier for you.”
At NativePath, we agree. We use natural stevia leaf extracts called steviol glycosides in our products. These are the compounds that make stevia sweet (17). They are all natural and come straight from the leaf, and are not mixed with fillers. In other words, we use raw stevia–because you deserve a natural, healthy sweetener in its purest form.
Stevia leaf extract is stable in high temperatures, so it’s safe to cook and bake with. Pure stevia leaf extract is also linked to several possible health benefits. Stevia could help lower triglycerides and increase HDL (good) cholesterol, decrease risk of heart disease, and lower the blood pressure of people with hypertension (18).
Stevia leaf extract may even help fight or prevent cancer. More research is needed, but several studies have found that stevia leaf extract may help destroy cancer cells along with offering anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects (19, 20, 21, 22).
The Bottom Line
Stevia is a fantastic natural sweetener. Unfortunately, most forms of stevia you’ll see at the grocery store are stevia blends that contain unhealthy filler ingredients. This is despite the fact they are marketed in a way that implies they only contain stevia. To benefit from stevia’s natural sweetness and health perks, choose stevia leaf extract. This is pure stevia straight from the source, which is why we use it in our nutrition products at NativePath.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Was Stevia Banned?
Stevia is not banned. But there are a few reasons people might think that it is…
Decades ago, the FDA briefly banned stevia based on a series of now-refuted studies. Today, the FDA categorizes stevia as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe.” It’s now been used as a sweetener in the US for years (and of course, for centuries before that in its native South America).
In fact, stevia has actually been used as a replacement for banned sweeteners. Back in the 70s, health and consumer officials in Japan banned several artificial sweeteners, including saccharin and cyclamate, due to health concerns (23). Stevia stepped in as a replacement for those sweeteners, and was even added to Japanese Coca-Cola formulas. In fact, stevia became so popular in Japan that as of 2006, it made up 40% of the country’s sweetener market (24).
Is Stevia Bad for You?
For most people, pure stevia is safe and healthy. The key is to steer clear of processed stevia and instead reach for pure stevia leaf extract. This is especially important if you’re diabetic, because the filler ingredients in processed stevia and stevia blends could increase your blood sugar (25, 26).
While stevia leaf extract is considered to be healthy, there are a few people who might want to be cautious when using it…
People with hypertension or diabetes should know that stevia may interact with blood pressure drugs or diabetes medications. Talk to a healthcare provider if you take these medications and have any concerns.
If you're allergic to plants in the Asteraceae or Compositae family (including ragweed, marigolds, and daisies), there’s a chance that you could be allergic to stevia too.
What Is Splenda Made of?
Splenda is made from an artificial sweetener called sucralose. Sucralose is made from real sugar, but that doesn’t make it a natural product. Sucralose was invented in a lab and is created through a chemical process. The sweetener is linked to several possible health risks.
What Is Stevia Made From?
Stevia is made from the leaves of a South American plant called Stevia rebaudiana.
Which Is Better—Splenda or Stevia?
Stevia is a healthier option–when you choose stevia leaf extract. Stevia blends, on the other hand, go through chemical processes and contain filler ingredients that could make them as potentially unhealthy as Splenda.
How Much Stevia Is in One Packet?
One packet of stevia contains an equivalent of around two teaspoons of sugar.
As a writer, editor, and wellness seeker, Claire has written for Self, Health, Prevention, CNN, Mic, Livestrong, and Greatist, just to name a few. When she's not writing, she specializes in traveling, getting lost in health-related research rabbit holes, and finding new ways to spoil her cat.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.