It is a natural sweetener that is derived from the stevia plant. It is a replacement for artificial sweeteners that is beginning to gain ground in the health and diet market because it is both natural and virtually calorie free.
It seems to be a better option for dieters and diabetics than the more controversial chemicals like saccharine (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), and even sucralose (Splenda).
Stevia is sold under the brand names: Stevia Extract In the Raw, SweetLeaf, Only Sweet, PureVia (owned by Pepsi-Cola), and Truvia (owned by Coca-Cola).
Stevia extract is “generally recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The American Diabetes Association also reports that stevia doesn’t have any significant effect on blood sugar and can be “a good option for [diabetics] who are trying to cut calories and still enjoy a sweet taste.
And, a two-year study of 147 adults with mild hypertension showed that stevioside (one of the two main sweet-tasting components of stevia) not only improved their blood pressure compared to the placebo group, but had no significant side effects.
Animal studies have shown that low doses of stevia appear to increase levels of HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol, in male rats and it seemed to help prevent heart disease in mice.
When it comes to possible negative side effects, some users have reported mild nausea or feeling overly full. Also, stevia is 100-250 times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, in 2008 wanted the FDA to require more testing before granting it the “generally recognized as safe” status because of some animal studies done in the 1980s which linked very high doses of stevia with adverse effects on fertility and reproductive development and possible genetic mutations in rats. However, as shown above, more recent studies with lower doses have shown no adverse side effects.
None of the big 3 artificial sweeteners that stevia replaces have any of the positive side effects that stevia does, but, aside from possibly sucralose, they don’t seem to be guilty of causing cancer in humans as previously thought. Here are a few interesting facts about them.
Splenda is the newest artificial sweetener of the bunch and is marketed as being natural and “just like sugar”. However, it is not natural, it is a lab-created chemical compound containing chlorine. Incidentally, it was an accidental lab creation. This sweetener was discovered in 1976 by scientists in search of new insecticides!
The CSPI recently downgraded its safety rating of sucralose from “safe” to “caution,” which means that the additive “may pose a risk and needs to be better tested.” They changed it because of a recent study from researchers in Italy that found that sucralose caused leukemia in mice.1
NUTRASWEET, EQUAL (aspartame)
Another accidental byproduct discovered in 1965 during experiments to develop a peptic ulcer drug, aspartame has long had a bad reputation for causing cancer in mice. However, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) pointed out in 2007 that the rat studies involved intakes “far greater than humans could consume in foods and drinks”.
So, although they are chemically created and obviously quite dangerous to mice, Nutrasweet and Equal (aspartame) are probably okay for humansto consume in limited amounts.
SWEET’N LOW (saccharine)
Yet another accidental lab creation, saccharine is a coal-tar derivative that dates back to 1907. Although studies in the 1970’s showed that saccharine cause bladder cancer in rats, according to the National Cancer Institute, recent studies have shown that there is no clear evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans.2
The moral of the story is that—unless you happen to be a mouse or a rat—the big three artificial sweeteners are probably okay to be used in moderation. However, with all of its positive research and no animal studies that show carcinogenicity like the others, Stevia clearly appears to be the best sweetener option. It can be found at more and more stores these days. Give it a try some time. But, keep in mind that overuse of any kind of sweetener can perpetuate cravings for sweets, so they all need to be used sparingly.