There is a lot of controversy around sweeteners, especially naturally occurring alternatives to sugar, such as stevia. Stevia is an herb, and after all, all herbs are safe, right? So when I started seeing headlines attacking stevia, I knew I had to investigate. Is stevia safe?
And I really did my homework in order to get to the bottom of all this.
Putting Stevia Through the Wringer: Is Stevia Safe?
Stevia has been in the spotlight since Coca-Cola unveiled, in South America, a stevia-sugar combo dubbed Coca-Cola Life. This, quite obviously, quickly drew the attention of the natural health community. I mean, pretty much anything the Atlanta-based beverage giant does pings our radar.
Especially considering the fact that Coca-Cola has purchased a slew of “all natural” brands, including Zico, Vitamin Water, Simply Orange, Odwalla, and Honest Tea.
We have to ask ourselves a few questions:
- Do we really trust anything Coke does?
- Do we think Coca-Cola is trying to pull a “fast one” with its new stevia drink?
- Is Coke now safer to consume with stevia as a sweetener?
While some of these questions are a little more personal in nature, one thing is for sure: not all stevia is the same.
Natural Stevia vs. Processed Stevia
Stevia comes from the leaf of a plant and it’s a good bet that Coca-Cola isn’t using freshly ground stevia leaves in their soft drinks. For starters, the cost of that would be exorbitant and not conducive to the soft drink industry. That method would also create a storage problem, as it would be nearly impossible to keep that much stevia on hand.
For the sake of this argument, we’re going to safely assume Coke is using a highly processed version of stevia, which is more affordable and much easier to transport and store. Most of the time, synthetic versions like these contain bleach as a preservative, taste more like cane sugar than the stevia herb and are much sweeter than stevia.
Truth be told, many of the lessor brands aren’t 100 percent stevia. Their products are cut with filler sugars, such as xylitol and dextrose, which can lead to several diseases. This is why not all stevias are created equal.
The stark contrasts between chewing on a stevia leaf and pouring a white powdery substitute on your breakfast cereal are incredible. The natural plant version has been used medicinally for thousands of years while the modern processed versions are virtually untested.
Some Research Behind Stevia
When we’re talking about the natural plant form of stevia, there are hundreds of studies touting its medicinal benefits. 322 studies to be exact. It is generally accepted that stevia has the power to reverse obesity, diabetes and even certain cancers. According to research, the two main points about stevia are:
- The herb contains medicinal benefits for healing.
- White cane sugar is a primary cause of diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease, meaning people using stevia as a replacement are less likely to experience these conditions.
According to a few of the more prominent studies, stevia has the following benefits:
Reducing Breast Cancer
The journal Nutrition and Cancer published a revolutionary report that connected stevia use to reductions in breast cancer. Scientists saw that stevioside, a cancer-killing compound found in stevia leaves, increased cancer apoptosis (cell death) and limited some stress conduits in the body that promote cancer growth.
A recent study out of Croatia published in the journal Food Chemistry stated that stevia worked to boost antioxidant levels when mixed with colon cancer fighting blackberry leaves.
The effects of stevia use in rats was documented in a recent report highlighted in the Journal of Dietary Supplements. Researchers found that lab rats that were given 250 to 500 mg a day of stevia experienced “significant” reductions in fasting blood sugar levels and saw more balanced insulin resistance.
The bottom line is that stevia, when consumed in its raw plant form, is absolutely healthy for you and an excellent sugar substitute.
The 5 Best Natural Sweeteners
While stevia has few side effects, it is an herb, and different reactions can occur. It is important to listen to your body. Some people, however, have a hard time accepting stevia’s tangy flavor. Here are the 5 best natural sweeteners:
1. Coconut Nectar
One of my all-time favorite natural sweeteners is the sap from the coconut blossom. While this is relatively new to the U.S. market, Pacific Islanders have been using it for centuries.
At room temperature, coconut nectar is similar in consistency to honey and is an excellent source of the following vitamins and minerals: amino acids, Vitamin C, and broad-spectrum B vitamins. Better yet, the sap isn’t processed.
There's not much to say about dates other than the fact that they are one of the greatest natural sweeteners on Earth.
3. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is highly processed – even the most natural brands – and it still ranks light years ahead of white cane sugar. When syrup is made, maple sap is boiled down. Depending on the amount of sugar used in the water, it can take 100 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Maple syrup is packed with minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc. However, it is important to steer clear from Grade A maple syrup. It tends to be lighter in color and lacks the strong maple taste found in Grade B and Grade C.
4. Raw Honey
Honey is by far the healthiest natural sweetener – hands down. In fact, the health benefits of raw local honey are unbelievable. Throughout all my research, including scientific research, I have found that honey is used to prevent seasonal allergies, enhance the immune system, and fight tooth decay, acne, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome and much more. Personally, I have found that mixing raw local honey with organic ground cinnamon is a great way to fight allergies.
Last, but not least is stevia. When buying stevia, look for green stevia. White stevia has been bleached and processed beyond the point of being healthy.
In reality, no sweetener is 100 percent perfect and moderation is always important. The more popular stevia becomes, the more and more press you will see, both negative and positive. It’s important to pick a good brand and always read your labels. Avoid harmful fillers and only use stevia in small amounts.
What’s your favorite stevia brand? Let us know in the comments below.
- Paul S, et al. Stevioside induced ROS-mediated apoptosis through mitochondrial pathway in human breast cancer cell line MCF-7. Nutr Cancer 2012; 64(7):1087-94.
- Akbarzadeh S, et al. The Effect of Stevia Rebaudiana on Serum Omentin and Visfatin Level in STZ-Induced Diabetic Rats. J Diet Suppl 2014. [Epub ahead of print]
- Komes D, et al. Formulating blackberry leaf mixtures for preparation of infusions with plant derived sources of sweeteners. Food Chem 2014; (15)151:385-93.