What's The Scoop With Stevia?

Stevia has become a popular “healthy sugar substitute” because of its naturally occurring sweetness. The stevia plant, native to South America, has actually been used for hundreds of years as a sweetener. When stevia as a food additive started gaining attention in recent years, it was touted as a great sugar alternative for diabetics because it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels. It can also help with weight loss because it’s calorie-free.

But there’s an important distinction between the stevia plant that’s been used for hundreds of years, versus the stevia sweetener sold under brands including Truvia, Pure Via and Stevia in the Raw. Stevia sweetener, as in the food additive, has to be cut with other ingredients such as sugar alcohols or dextrose because of its intense sweetness, according to Prevention. So it may not be quite as pure as you might hope.

The FDA categorizes stevia sweeteners as “generally recognized as safe” (“GRAS”). But it’s important to note that crude stevia extracts (the raw form made of ground stevia leaves) and stevia leaf are not considered GRAS and don’t have FDA approval to use in food.

Even though the FDA considers stevia food additive as safe, it still may be wise to look to alternatives. Well + Good recently had two health experts weigh in on whether stevia is actually healthy. One expert believes stevia is fine in moderation and is particularly good for diabetics because it doesn’t elevate glucose or insulin. But she still says it’s best to use it in moderation because it can cause sweet cravings. After all, it is still sweet.

But another expert cautions against using stevia because his research found that it interacted with DNA and caused genetic mutations. This doesn’t mean that it necessarily causes cancer, but some might say it’s not worth the risk.

So how does stevia rank among the other popular sugar substitutes? It’s hard to say because there’s so much conflicting research on the safety of any sugar alternative. But many have seen more controversy than stevia.

Aspartame, for instance, has been a source of concern for years because of claims that it can cause cancer. The zero-calorie sweetener is marketed under brands such as Equal and NutraSweet, and is added to foods and beverages such as diet sodas and mints.

But the jury is still out, even about aspartame. According to the American Cancer Society, most human studies haven’t found any link to an increased risk of cancer with aspartame consumption. And in 2007, the FDA said it found no reason to change its previous opinion of the safety of aspartame as a food sweetener. Regardless of whether aspartame is safe, some products including Diet Pepsi have responded to the public’s concerns and replaced aspartame with sucralose.

There are several other artificial sweeteners on the market including saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame K and neotame. And overall, a big draw with all of them is the hope of weight loss. But if you’re going to use an artificial sweetener of any kind, we suggest moderation. Although stevia is touted as an “all-natural, zero-calorie” sweetener, the fact remains that research on its health effects is still young. And all sugar substitutes are ultimately still feeding a sweet tooth.

What do you think of stevia and other sugar substitutes? Post in the comments below.