Word has spread, and most people are aware that refined sugar is bad for your health, as are artificial sweeteners. But what about natural sweeteners like monk fruit syrup or stevia? Is stevia safe for everyone? Your kids? Your pets? Pregnant ladies? Diabetics? We’ve got the answers for you!
Stevia is a sugar substitute often used by the health conscious to help regulate blood sugar levels, reduce caloric intake, and avoid dental cavities. It’s derived from the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) native to South America and can sweeten your food with zero calories added. Up to 200 times sweeter than your average refined table sugar, stevia’s better at being sweet than sugar is, so why doesn’t everyone use it?
While some people just don’t like the taste, others are unfamiliar with stevia as a food additive and are unsure if it’s safe enough for everyone to use. The health benefits include weight loss and improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels, so how could it possibly cause anyone harm? One concern is quality control.
The stevia sweeteners available for purchase vary, sometimes drastically, in quality. Many are as highly refined as white sugar, and sometimes they’re mixed with other sweeteners like dextrose, maltodextrin, and erythritol.
For example, popular stevia brands like Truvia and Stevia in the Raw are blended sweeteners, not pure stevia, and they’re heavily processed on top of that: they’re made with refined stevia extract (rebaudioside A, a steviol glycoside) made from stevia leaves soaked in water and passed through an alcohol filter. They are then combined with other sugar alcohols and sweeteners.
The least processed form of stevia is green leaf stevia (also known as crude stevia extracts), made from the whole stevia leaf after it’s been dried and ground into powder. If you can’t be sure you’re getting the real deal, you might forego using stevia despite its various health benefits.
Refined stevia extracts are on the “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS list put out by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This designation allows for the sale and inclusion of stevia in food products. However, whole-leaf stevia is not on that list, due in part to a lack of specific research affirming that it’s safe.
When it comes to food safety, you naturally want the FDA to err on the side of complete accuracy, so what does the science say about the safety of stevia for certain vulnerable populations like kids, pregnant women, and pets? What about those with diabetes? Without further ado, here are the answers.
Short answer: yes.
Using stevia in the foods you prepare for the children in your life helps cut down their sugar consumption. And a little goes a long way since stevia is astronomically sweeter than gritty table sugar. The American Heart Association warns about the dangers of sugar for kids: high amounts of added sugar in the diets of children can increase their risk of heart disease, elevate their cholesterol levels, and lead to childhood and then life-long obesity.
Replacing sugar with stevia is much healthier for kids, so long as you don’t exceed the recommended limit, which is 1.8 milligrams per pound (or 4 milligrams per kilogram). If you do the math for yourself and your kiddos, you’ll stay well within the safe zone.
The answer is: probably. We’ll explain.
There isn’t a ton of research done on stevia during pregnancy, especially on human subjects. You can certainly understand why: a doctor doesn’t want to give you even a baby aspirin when you’re pregnant if there’s the slightest chance it can risk the delicate health of a developing baby. So, naturally they’re not volunteering pregnant women for experiments.
However, there is at least one animal study that shows this non-nutritive sweetener does not harm either pregnancy or fertility in mice. What’s safe for a mouse embryo may not be enough data for you to rely on, despite knowing that many regulatory agencies have deemed it safe for moderate use during pregnancy.
Long answer short: ask your doctor, and then trust your doctor.
Not that you want to bake a tin of sweet muffins for Mittens and Rover, but pets can get into anything, and if stevia is toxic to your fur babies, you may not want it around the house. Good news though: according to the ASPCA, stevia is non-toxic for dogs, cats, and horses. If your furry friend accidentally eats this sweet leaf, it’s okay: they’re safe.
If you’re diabetic or pre-diabetic, you’ve got to get sugar out of your food. Some people turn to sugar alternatives like Splenda or make peace with the problematic aspartame in diet soft drinks to avoid the detrimental health effects of sugar, but what about stevia? Is it safe for those with diabetes?
Well, they’re not entirely sure. Safe enough to eat, but according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there are still some questions surrounding stevia safety, and for those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it’s important to be sure that your sugar replacement doesn’t have adverse effects on your glucose or insulin sensitivity.
An animal study showed decreased levels of blood sugar over 8 weeks of stevia use, but that can only tell you so much about human responses to stevia. One very small human study showed that consuming stevioside helped decrease blood sugar levels better than the corn starch consumed by the control group, but research is still pretty skimpy.
Basically, diabetics get the same advice as pregnant women: ask your doctor if stevia is safe for you, and follow that professional advice. Also keep in mind that many stevia products are blends, so if you’re interested in using stevia, make sure that stevia is all you’re consuming, because additives like dextrose and maltodextrin can lead to increased blood sugar levels.
If you’ve decided that stevia is safe for you, that’s the end of this conversation right? Almost!
You may have noticed that some low-calorie sweeteners and sugar-free candies, ice creams, and gums have a laxative effect thanks to the inclusion of maltitol or sorbitol. You may experience bloating or digestive discomfort from those substances, and that may be true for stevia blends as well. Likewise there are some indications that stevia and other zero-calorie sweeteners can interfere with your ratio of gut bacteria, which could also cause digestive issues.
Keep these potential side effects in mind as you start using stevia, and if you notice any discomfort, give it a pass.
You can use stevia to sweeten up your food with no calories added. It’s been deemed safe for kids, pets, pregnant women, and diabetics, but always defer to a health care professional if you have hesitations about consuming this or any other food product. That being said, this natural sweetener can help you avoid weight gain, detox from sugar, and protect against blood sugar spikes, so if you’re interested, give it a try!