Behind the Label: Is Stevia Healthy?
ColumnThe popularity of the zero-calorie sweetener stevia is on the rise. But is stevia healthy? We go behind the label to find out.
Derived from a plant of the same name, stevia is as much as 150 times sweeter than table sugar but without delivering the spike in blood glucose. It contains active compounds (known as steviol glycosides) called stevioside and rebaudioside, which are responsible for its sweetness.
Once banned in the U.S. from being sold as a sweetener, the FDA approved it for sale as a zero-calorie sweetener in 2008. Since then, a number of stevia-sweetened products have hit the market, including sodas from Pepsico–Pepsi True (which is just launching in the U.S.), and Coca-Cola’s Life. There’s also Truvia, a sweetener based on the stevia plant, and Domino makes a stevia and cane sugar blended sweetener.
You can also purchase pure stevia powders and liquid extracts in health food stores and online. The green powder is less processed, while the white is refined to look more like white sugar. The liquids are usually stevia extracts added to an alcohol or glycerin base.
Stevia has a long history of use in South America, where it grows in countries including Brazil and Paraguay. Its leaves have been used to sweeten foods and herbs, making them more palatable. Its long history means that unlike chemically-derived artificial sweeteners, it’s been proven to be safe for humans for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Unlike sugar, stevia doesn’t impact blood sugar levels, which makes it an ideal sugar substitute for people with diabetes or other blood sugar issues, or anyone just looking to reduce their sugar intake. In fact, it can lower blood sugar levels in people with high blood sugar. And unlike artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin, stevia isn’t linked to harmful side effects including behavioral issues, headaches, tinnitus and even cancer.
In fact, stevia’s been linked to other health benefits including reduced blood pressure, and the treatment of heartburn and indigestion.
When added to oral care products such as toothpastes and mouthwashes, stevia has been shown to increase the antibacterial properties of the products, making it a potential tool in the fight against tooth decay and gingivitis—and a unique one at that, given that it’s so sweet tasting.
Skin may also benefit from the addition of stevia in a personal care regimen. When applied topically, stevia extracts have been shown to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, blemishes, dermatitis, eczema, acne, scars, rashes and dryness.
Stevia may also aid in calcium formation, which could make it a healthy addition to the diets of post-menopausal women and anyone else at risk of bone loss or osteoporosis.
Some mild side effects of stevia have been reported, including nausea, bloating and gas. And there are studies looking at its impact on other organs including the kidneys, especially when consumed in high and frequent doses.
Because it’s a zero-calorie sweetener, individuals may over-consume otherwise unhealthy products – such as sodas – that contain stevia. Coca-Cola and Pepsico may be banking on that with the launch of their new sodas: Coca-Cola Life and Pepsi True. But even though the sodas both contain stevia, they are not exclusively stevia-sweetened, which can mislead consumers looking to avoid sugars. Coca-Cola Life, for example has 24 grams of sugar per serving. That’s just a 35 percent reduction over regular Coca-Cola. Pepsi’s True rings in at 40 percent fewer calories than its original, but it’s still a significant amount of calories for a soda.
Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola are marketing their stevia-sweetened soft drinks with green labels—green is synonymous these days with a product being “natural” or even organic. But both products contain sugar, which makes these sodas only slightly less sweet than the regular sodas.
And sugar not noted as “cane sugar” on the label means there’s a greater likelihood that it comes from herbicide-dependent genetically modified sugar beets, which aren’t exactly the epitome of “natural.” The products contain artificial colors, flavors and preservatives that don’t fall under the definition of “natural” either, regardless of the term itself not being regulated. These ingredients have landed Coca-Cola with a slew of recent lawsuits.
Truvia, the stevia-based zero-calorie sweetener, is manufactured by a joint relationship between Cargill and Coca-Cola.
While it claims to be a natural sweetener, Truvia is a very refined version of stevia, refined to isolate rebaudioside A, one of the steviols linked to stevia’s natural sweetness. Truvia also includes erythritol and xylitol, which aren’t as “natural” as they claim to be. There are also “natural flavors” added to Truvia, which don’t have to be as natural as the name sounds and can in fact contain highly refined extracts.
Stevia, while touted as a miracle sugar-free sweetener, doesn’t taste like sugar. In fact, it can have an overbearing bitterness and aftertaste that can dramatically alter the flavor of a product, which is likely why Pepsi and Coca-Cola also add sugar to their stevia sodas. That sugar, not the stevia, will make you likely to want to drink more of the products, even though they’re not even half as sweet as their original counterparts.
If you plan to bake with stevia extract instead of sugars, you’ll also have to reformulate your recipes to make up for the loss of mass of sweeteners, whether dried sugars or liquids like honey or maple syrup.
Cargill, which makes the Truvia product along with Coca-Cola, is not exactly known as the manufacturer of clean and healthy food products. It’s best known for meats and grains, most of which are genetically modified (or in the case of animal products, animals who were fed GMOs). Despite maintaining its image of being a family run business, Cargill generated more than $130 billion in revenue in 2013, making it the largest privately-held business in the U.S. Being privately held means it doesn’t have to disclose as much information about the company as a publicly held company, which has earned a fair share of criticism. It’s also been linked to controversies including deforestation and contaminated seeds.
There are also questions about sugar alcohols, such as those found in Truvia, which are so isolated from the stevia plant that using the nutritional profile of the plant as a baseline for the health benefits of the extracted stevia, is a little like saying high fructose corn syrup has all the inherent health benefits of whole organic corn.
The Bottom Line
So, is stevia healthy? Stevia, like most other foods, seems to retain most of its benefits in its least processed state. In some parts of the country, you can even successfully grow stevia plants, which would be your best bet for using the leaves to naturally sweeten foods and drinks.
If you are looking to remove sugars or chemical artificial sweeteners from your diet, a processed stevia extract may be a healthier alternative with far fewer risks and side effects – but still, use it sparingly, not as an excuse to indulge in (artificially) sweetened foods and beverages.
When it comes to the stevia products like Truvia or Coca-Cola and Pepsico’s sodas, those may be best regarded as last choice options, like when you’re on an airplane or traveling abroad and the other option is tap water.
Stevia seems to be used best as a transition product—stepping users down from a sugar or an artificial sweetener habit. But the ultimate goal should be to keep sweet indulgences limited and healthy foods the mainstay.
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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