What Is Stevia?
Stevia, a native plant from South America, has a natural sweetness that comes from compounds within the plant leaves called steviol glycosides, which are 50–400 times sweeter than table sugar. These glycosides are extracted to make the zero-calorie sweetener we call stevia. They include:
Stevioside, in particular, has been researched extensively for its blood sugar-lowering properties. Which is why stevia has a long history of treating diabetes among the peole of Paraguay and Brazil.
Health Benefits of Stevia
Although stevia hasn’t yet earned “health-food” status like blueberries, spinach or broccoli, it does have many amazing health benefits
#1: Anti-diabetic effects
The chief characteristic of type 2 diabetes is high blood sugar. Although Stevia is certainly not a diabetes cure, it may help control blood sugar by way of improved insulin function.
Stevia produces a lower post-meal insulin response than sugar.
In one study stevia improved the post-meal insulin response even compared to aspartame, an artificial sweetener with zero calories.
Interestingly, stevioside stimulates insulin release from the pancreas at high blood sugar concentrations, which helps bring blood sugar back down. But when blood sugar is in normal ranges , stevia doesn’t appear to have the same insulin-stimulating effect. For people with type 2 diabetes, stevia may be a huge asset in their weight loss journey, and for those without blood sugar issues, it means that using stevia instead of sugar may help prevent the blood sugsr dysregulation and insulin resistance that may contribute to type 2 diabetes.
#2: Antioxidant effects
Stevia is rich in plant compounds called phenols. These phenols may reduce oxidative stress, which drives aging and chronic disease.
Some oxidative stress is normal. It’s part of living, breathing, and moving. But when too many reactive oxygen species (ROS) are produced, it’s a recipe for long term chronic illness.
#3: Anti-inflammatory effects
Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) is an inflammatory particle that is stored in fat tissue. In diabetics, excess TNF-α decreases insulin sensitivity by reducing the activity of a protein called glucose transporter type 4 (GLUT4), which transports sugar into muscle and liver cells.
Stevia has been shown to reduce inflammation in fat tissue, thereby increasing insulin sensitivity. Stevioside also decreased circulating levels of interleukin 6 and interleukin 10—two cell-signaling proteins called cytokines linked to chronic inflammation..
#4: Oral health
A 6-month randomized controlled trial on school children found that stevia mouthwash had both antiplaque and antigingivitis effects. Conversely, sugar promotes the growth of cavity-causing bacteria like Streptococcus mutans.
#5: Overeating control
Consuming stevia may decrease subsequent overeating. In a 2020 study, people ate fewer calories if they drank a stevia-sweetened beverage (vs. water) beforehand.
This anti-hunger mechanism may involve the intestinal hormone glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1).
Stevia activates bitter taste receptors, stimulating this satiety hormone that slows gastric emptying, the process by which the contents of the stomach are moved into the small intestine.
One More Benefit: Sustainability
Stevia beats sugar when it comes to carbon footprint. Cane sugar production emits 64% more carbon-based pollution than it’d take to produce a comparable amount of stevia.
Cane sugar requires 95% more water to produce the same amount of sweetness as stevia.
The Safety of Stevia
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in th US has conferred “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status to stevia. After reviewing over 200 human and animal studies, they set the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for stevia extract at 4 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
The ADI is the daily dose of a substance one could consume over a lifetime without causing harm. For example, a 150-pound woman could safely consume up to 40 tabletop packets of stevia a day for the rest of her life.
Is Stevia Bad for You? (Concerns and Side Effects)
#1: Does stevia have side effects?
Some people notice “nausea, bloating, and low blood pressure.” While there’s a small incidence of gastrointestinal side effects, it’s not significant enough to make a significant impact in most people. Unlike sugar, stevia is NOT fermented by gut bacteria.
It is possible that some people can’t tolerate stevia as everyone’s gut microbiomes are unique, and some people have more sensitive digestive systems than others.
#2: Does stevia disrupt hormones?
There have been reports that stevia affects reproductive hormones, decreases sperm count, and impairs fertility. The evidence is contradictory and all of it is based on amounts of stevia not generally consumed by the average North American.
#3: Does stevia alter the gut microbiome?
Researchers have demonstrated that stevia changes the composition of microbes in the gut in rodents. But the same study also showed that stevia “did not alter weight gain or glucose tolerance compared to [controls].” And when stevia was paired with a prebiotic, the combo reduced fat mass, food intake, and leaky gut—all very good things.
Granted, when microbial shifts happen, we generally don’t know if they’re good or bad. A 2020 study concluded that “overall, stevia seems to modify the gut microbiota; however, further studies are needed to clarify its specific effects.”
#4: Does stevia cause hypoglycemia?
No. Stevia helps with glycemic control. When blood sugar is high, stevia stimulates insulin to bring it down. When blood sugar is low, stevia doesn’t do much.
There’s no evidence that stevia causes dangerously low blood sugar levels. In rats, a single large dose of stevioside didn’t cause hypoglycemia. And in humans, large daily doses of other glycosides did not disrupt glucose regulation.
#5: Does stevia dysregulate appetite?
Some people worry that eating stevia dysregulates appetite and drives cravings. But clinically stevia seems to reduce overeating.
Is Stevia Healthy?
Yes. Most people tolerate stevia very well, and many people benefit from it. But some super sensitive people feel better when they eliminate stevia. It depends on your unique physiology, and it’s always best to listen to your body.