health

Is Stevia bad for you? Benefits and side effects.

You might’ve encountered it at a friend’s house when you asked for one sugar in your tea, or on the counter top in the office kitchen. We’re talking about Stevia.

Stevia sweeteners as we know them have been popular for around a decade when they first came on the market as the low kilojoule, low carb alternative to sugar.

In many households, Stevia products have replaced all sugars. Even raw sugar.

While some people swear by Stevia, a lot of questions still remain about what’s actually in Stevia and whether it’s as ‘healthy’ as it’s marketed to be.

To find out, we asked dietitians, nutritionists and a naturopath to explain: what is Stevia, is Stevia better for you than sugar and is it safe to pop in your morning coffee.

Here are their thoughts.

What is Stevia?

“Stevia (or steviol glucosides) is an intensely sweet compound found in the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) plant, a semi tropical plant common in Paraguay and Brazil,” Anna Debenham and Alex Parker, Accredited Practising Dietitians and founders of The Biting Truth’s Nutrition Reboot Program, told Mamamia.

Modern food manufacturers then extract steviol glycosides from the leaves of the plants and refine them into a white powder or small white tablets that are the table sweeteners like Natvia, Hermesetas and SteviaSweet we’re familiar with.

Stevia vs Sugar.

We know consuming large amounts of refined sugar is detrimental to our health.

Wellness by Blair Naturopath and Nutritionist Jess Blair told Mamamia “high amounts of sugar have many negative health effects including weight gain, blood sugar problems and increased risk of heart disease”.

So how does Stevia stack up against the sugar most of us have in our pantries? There are a couple of main differences.

“Stevia can be up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar and, as a result, in order to get the same level of sweetness as you would with regular sugar, only a tiny amount is required in a final product or recipe,” Kara Landau, Accredited Practising Dietitian and founder at Uplift Food, told Mamamia.

“At the levels consumed, Stevia extracts typically provide negligible kilojoules, carbohydrates or sugars, and therefore do not have an effect on blood sugar levels (no glycemic index or GI). On the other hand, table sugar is technically a disaccharide called sucrose, made up of a glucose and fructose molecule. Table sugar has a GI of 65 and, when consumed in excess, can lead to an inflammatory response within the body.”

Side note – sugar often hides in your favourite foods, here’s a run down of just how much and how to spot it. Post continues after video.

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Video by MMC

To use Debenham and Parker’s example, a teaspoon of a Stevia-based sweetener contains about four kilojoules, where the same amount of sugar has 67 kilojoules. They also said Stevia ranks better for dental health and those with diabetes.

“Stevia doesn’t elevate blood sugar levels like sugar does which makes it a better choice for those with diabetes. It’s also a better option when it comes to dental health as it does not lead to dental cavities like sugar.”

Unlike sugar, Stevia can have a bitter aftertaste, meaning products marketed as ‘Stevia sweetened’ might also contain sugar to soften the aftertaste.

“For some people, particularly diabetics who are choosing these products to control blood sugar levels, this can be detrimental. We recommend checking the ingredients list to see if sugar is listed in the product,” Debenham and Parker added.

Is Stevia good for you?

All of the dietitians and nutritionists we spoke to said while artificial sweetness like Stevia aren’t necessarily harmful to human health, they’re not perfectly safe either.

“Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) approved the use of steviol glycosides (Stevia extracts) as a food and beverage ingredient in 2008. Since then, there has been no evidence to suggest that Stevia is harmful. And this sweetener has been the subject of scientific testing for safety for more than 25 years,” Debenham and Parker said.

“Unfortunately, we just don’t know enough about the long term effects yet – for certain individuals (e.g. people with diabetes), Stevia is probably a better option. However, when it comes to weight management, it is unclear if Stevia actually helps to manage weight.”

“Stevia doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes, so it is safe for those trying to reduce their sugar intake or high GI options, as well as those looking for a natural sweetener that doesn’t have a negative impact on their digestion,” Landau said.

Blair added, “Consuming Stevia in small amounts is safe, however it can interact with blood pressure medications and some herbs and medicines, so always consult your doctor before adding into your diet.

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Does Stevia have any side effects?

One of the purported side effects of Stevia is that it negatively affects female fertility. In Landau’s opinion, the studies supporting these claims aren’t backed by relevant evidence.

“The studies that these claims have been based off were performed on rats back in 1968, not humans, and the scientists behind the studies have even concluded themselves that any of the potential outcomes in the animal studies may have been a result of an overdosage in such a short period of time,” she said.

“There is no data to confirm these earlier hypothesis or to cause concern in humans. In addition, a more recent research journal article published in 2008 confirmed that there is no cause for concern from its consumption.”

Other side effects may include bloating or digestive discomfort, and in the raw form of the product, kidney issues. It is also possible to have an allergic reaction to Stevia.

Former I Quit Sugar boss Sarah Wilson spoke to Mamamia about three ways to cut out more sugar from your life below. Post continues after audio.

Alternatives to sugar and Stevia.

If you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake but aren’t that keen on Stevia, or need more alternatives, there are other dietary tweaks you can make.

“There are additional options to Stevia such as monk fruit extract or less intensely sweet prebiotic fibres such as isomalto-oligosaccharides, also known as tapioca fibre syrup or powder,” Landua said.

“For those wanting to simply ‘trick’ their taste buds into thinking something tastes a little sweeter, you can go for options such as incorporating cinnamon and vanilla powders which our brains often associate with sweeter foods and can be perceived as sweeter than they actually are.”

Debenham and Parker also recommended aiming to make small changes in your diet, including:

  • Avoiding adding sugar to coffee or tea, or try and limit the amount added.
  • Where appropriate, swapping sugar in recipes for things like cinnamon, five-spice, nutmeg, vanilla, ginger or lemon.
  • Swapping flavoured yoghurt with plain yoghurt and sweeten it naturally with fruit.
  • Swapping soft drinks, juices and energy drinks for water, tea, kombucha or soda water (or water flavoured with a slice of lemon, cucumber, or even raspberries).
  • Swapping milk chocolate for dark chocolate.
  • Making your own desserts and baked goods as this will give you control over how much sugar you add – “We love making banana ice cream to sometimes replace ice cream in our diet by blending frozen sliced bananas and adding in some cacao powder or cinnamon for a flavour boost.”

The final verdict on Stevia…

In most cases, Stevia isn’t dangerous to consume. For diabetics or others wanting to reduce their sugar intake, Stevia can be a great alternative to sugar, but it’s not the only option. If you need a sweet hit in your beverages or baking and Stevia’s bitter aftertaste doesn’t bother you, go for it.

This article is not to be substituted for professional, personalised advice. If you are thinking about changing your diet, please consult your GP or health professional first.

Have you tried Stevia? Do you find it works for you? Let us know in the comments. 

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