Stevia: Good or Bad?
This post started out as a review of the book, Trim Healthy Mama, but quickly turned into a full-blown research project on the popular alternative sweetener, stevia.
Trim Healthy Mama – and other popular diets – rely on zero-calorie sweeteners almost exclusively for their recipes, so in order to fully review the book, I had to get friendly with stevia. (Not to worry… my review of Trim Healthy Mama is coming soon!)
So what is stevia? And why is it so popular?
Stevia… the Herb
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) as God created it is known by the herbal community as the “sweet herb”, “honeyleaf” and “sweetleaf”. It is a white-flowered plant bearing leaves that not only offer an intense sweetening ability (8 times more than traditional sugar) but also significant nutritional value.
Stevia leaves are very high in chromium and manganese, with notable levels of potassium, selenium, magnesium and vitamin A, too.
Native to South America, stevia has been used for thousands of years most notably as a sweetener for teas and other beverages. The leaves contain eight compounds called steviol glycosides (sugar compounds), which make stevia the “sweet’ herb that it is; the most talked about glycosides are stevioside and rebaudioside.
In 1931, French chemists supposedly extracted stevioside – the most abundant glycoside found in the stevia leaves – and crystallized it into a white powder. A few years later it served as a substitute sweetener during the sugar shortages brought about by WWII.
Today, the common forms of stevia appear both as a powder and an extract.
Stevia’s March on Washington
After WWII, the public generally lost interest in the sweet plant, leaving only herbalists to truly appreciate it’s value.
But then in 1991 stevia was actually banned from the U.S. marketplace as a food item because of several concerns that it caused cancer, genetic mutations, and reproductive complications.
But then came stevia’s big twist of fate.
In 2008 the FDA’s ban on stevia was miraculously lifted following some pretty underhanded political maneuvers. You know the drill… once a few big money food manufactures decided stevia would be a great addition to the marketplace, the FDA started whistling a different tune. And no one seemed to care that there were still unanswered concerns regarding the safety of the plant.
The joke is that whole-leaf stevia – you know, the real plant? – must still be marketed only as a supplement, not a food.
I guess big-business isn’t too interested in horticulture.
Stevia… the Zero-Calorie Sweetener
Stevia as an herb is really intriguing.
And it’s green.
Stevia as man created it is… intriguing for different reasons.
For one, it’s white.
Immediately after the FDA lifted it’s ban on stevia, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co introduced their “all natural” stevia brands to the market: Truvia and PureVia, respectively.
These products use one steviol glycoside, rebaudioside. This particular plant extract was 200 times sweeter than sugar and had less of the undesirable aftertaste found when using the whole plant.
In fact, Truvia is the result of of 40 step process – yes, 40 – that turns the green plant into something bleached and bathed in chemicals like acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol.
Sounds pretty “all-natural” to me!
But hey, there’s always a little give and take in every relationship.
At least the end product tastes good, right?
Stevia’s Taste? Let’s Be Honest…
Stevia has a very strong aftertaste. It’s sweet all right, but the aftertaste is, well, plant-ish and can be a
bit lot on the bitter side, depending on the product.
The bummer is, you can’t get rid of it.
Well, not without a lot of cover-up.
In fact, the problematic aftertaste has many companies scrambling to develop flavoring solutions. You can read more about those franken-flavorings here.
But there are other ingredients added to stevia products, too, that have consumers fooled into thinking they’re buying a healthy product, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Next time you’re browsing stevia producs, check the label for the sugar alcohols: erythritol and xylitol. Both of these sweeteners are marketed “all-natural” as well, but are dangerous and should be avoided. And by they way, they are neither sugar nor alcohol. Who knew, right?!
And don’t gloss over the “natural flavors” either. Despite the name, these synthetic chemical bombs produce a happy little “food carnival” in your mouth, according to former FDA commissioner, David Kessler, which trick your mind into wanting more and more… and more.
Does this sound like real food to you?
I’ll stop for a minute to note that herbal stevia products also have varying tastes, due to the purity of the stevioside compounds and whether the preparation included more plant parts than just the leaves. A minimum of 90-95% glycoside is considered pure. (Source) So if you’re interested in using an herbal extract of stevia, make sure it contains at least 90% glycosides (rebaudioside or stevioside).
Stevia… So good? Or no good?
Stevia, the herb, has a long, successful history of use as a natural sweetener and a medicinal aid.
Stevia, the highly processed isolated glycoside, does not.
Commerical stevia products put me in the mind of a synthetic vitamin supplement that boasts of being “all-natural” but really only contains one real food ingredient.
Although in this case, there isn’t even one real food ingredient.
I think there is certainly some merit to these concerns and only time will allow science to better flesh out the picture for us.
But I do know one thing, stevia grown, harvested and used as an herb can be a wonderful addition to your kitchen and medicinal cabinet.
I recommend making your own stevia tincture (extract) or, better yet, grinding your own dried stevia leaves and sprinkling the powder into your food.
Just be prepared for the taste.
If you prefer to buy commercial stevia products:
- Stevia powder: Choose an unbleached whole-leaf stevia product that has no additives like this one, or
- You can also buy ground stevia leaves from any herbal supplier;
- Stevia extract: Choose a stevia extract that contains only stevia leaf, alcohol and/or glycerine, like this one;
- Stevia concentrate: Again, choose a product that contains only stevia leaf and water, like this one.
Like with any herb, just use caution when using it and beware of possible side effects like nausea, diarrhea and dizziness.
Stevia has also been shown to produce an allergic reaction in individuals who have a ragweed allergy.
At the end of the day…
Stevia is certainly a nutrient-rich herb to become acquainted with and add to your kitchen arsenal.
But don’t be caught up in the commercial “fad” brought about by the big business corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co.
Such was the craze with agave nectar and I think stevia is doomed to the same fate.
If you have health-related issues that dictate the use of a low-glycemic sweetener, stevia may be your best “natural” option, and is certainly better than the synthetic alternatives like Splenda and Sweet ‘n Low.
However, you might consider trying coconut palm sugar, too. While it can’t boast of a zero on the glycemic index, it is considered a low-glycemic sweetener and it’s not refined in any way.
Additionally, Girl Meets Nourishment offers a great overview of natural sweeteners that may inspire you to try other all-natural sugar replacements out there.
Do you use stevia?
Why or why not?
FURTHER READING and ADD’L SOURCES
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