If you’re looking to cut down on sugar with a natural alternative sweetener, you’ve probably heard of the popular sugar substitute that is stevia.
This article looks at what stevia is, what the potential pros and cons of stevia are, and whether stevia is a healthy sugar substitute.
What is Stevia?
Unlike artificial, man-made sweeteners like aspartame, stevia is a natural, plant-based sugar alternative.
It is extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. The stevia plant is native to South America, and its leaves have been used as a sweetener for hundreds of years.
The leaves of the stevia plant contain chemicals called steviol glycosides, which have a naturally sweet taste. Depending on the types of glycosides they contain, stevia leaves are about 150-350x sweeter than regular table sugar!
The leaves are filtered, purified, and concentrated to make stevia products.
Stevia sweeteners can come in different forms such as liquid stevia extract or stevia powder.
The level of sweetness and the taste of the stevia you buy will depend on the concentration and purity of the stevia, which depends on the manufacturing methods. This can differ between different stevia products and brands.
Stevia that is approved for use as a food sweetener is high-purity stevia extract that contains 95% or greater steviol glycoside content.
Benefits of Stevia
One of the main appeals of stevia is that it has virtually zero calories. Using stevia instead of sugar is a way to reduce your calorie intake and refined sugar consumption.
However, note that stevia sweeteners often have added fillers or are combined with other sweeteners/ingredients, which may add calories.
To keep it calorie-free, stick with 100% pure stevia extract.
Stabilizes blood sugar
In addition to zero calories, stevia also contains virtually no carbs, so stevia does not spike blood sugar levels like sugar and other sweeteners do.
Some in vitro and animal studies suggest that stevia has hypoglycemic and insulinotropic effects, meaning it lowers blood sugar and influences insulin secretion (1).
Because of this, stevia may help with insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular risk, and other problems stemming from high blood sugar levels.
In terms of human studies, some randomized controlled trials have found that daily stevia consumption does not raise fasting blood glucose or glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) in type 2 diabetics, unlike the placebo treatment (1).
Other than these results, human clinical trials are still limited and results remain inconclusive due to different studies using different types and concentrations of stevia.
Lowers blood pressure
Stevia may also help with high blood pressure.
One systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that, compared to placebo, stevia showed an overall significant reduction in systolic blood pressure (1).
Another long-term clinical trial found that stevioside (one of the glycosides in stevia) significantly decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure in Chinese patients with mild essential hypertension (high blood pressure) who took 500mg stevioside powder capsules 3 times daily for 2 years (2).
As a blood-sugar- and blood-pressure-friendly option, stevia has implications for the management of diabetes and cardiovascular health.
In addition to lowering blood glucose levels, one study found that 1g of stevia leaf powder daily for 60 days resulted in significantly reduced serum cholesterol, triglyceride, and very low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (VLDL-C) levels in type 2 diabetics (3).
However, other randomized controlled studies that used lower doses of daily stevia did not find significant cholesterol-lowering effects.
Is Stevia Safe?
High-purity stevia leaf extracts are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA.
The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is set at approximately 12mg of high-purity stevia per kg of body weight per day (4). (The ADI is defined as the maximum amount that can be consumed daily over a lifetime with no appreciable health risk).
Stevia vs. Sugar
So, is stevia indeed better than sugar?
When compared to regular, refined, white table sugar, stevia is the clear winner in terms of healthiest sweetener.
Stevia is much sweeter so much less is needed, and it offers far fewer (i.e. none) of the simple carbs that sugar is notorious for. Sucrose (table sugar) has a glycemic index (GI) of 65 compared to stevia’s GI of 0. (Glycemic index is a measure of how much a food spikes your blood sugar levels, with 100 being the highest GI).
While neither stevia nor sugar offer any nutrients, stevia has no calories and carbs, whereas sugar is all empty calories and pure glucose.
Because of its blood sugar-spiking capabilities, sugar can lead to all sorts of health issues. Large amounts of regular sugar intake is linked to risk of various health issues including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and tooth decay (5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
Given that the standard Western diet tends to add way to much sugar to pretty much everything, replacing sugar with stevia may be a great way to cut down on sugar, reduce overall calorie intake, and stabilize blood glucose and insulin levels.
However, despite all the previously mentioned pros, stevia is not without cons…
Cons of Stevia
Since stevia influences blood sugar and insulin regulation, it is thought that perhaps stevia is a great option for regulating eating behaviours, food intake, and weight management…
However, randomized controlled trials have not found any significant reduction in total daily food intake or satiety rating from stevia compared to sucrose (10, 11). One study found that stevia actually increased hunger and lowered satiety (11).
Additionally, there is the problem of stevia just not tasting the same as sugar. Stevia has a bit of a bitter aftertaste that many people do not like. Stevia is not an exact substitute and cannot easily be swapped in for sugar in recipes.
Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the stevia plant. It has zero calories and may be beneficial for managing blood sugar, blood pressure, and more. Stevia is considered safe to consume.
Let me know in the comments below if you enjoyed this article on stevia, or if/how you use stevia as a sweetener in your diet!