A Closer Look at Stevia
What Is Stevia?
Stevia is a natural, non-caloric sweetener. Stevia rebaudiana is a leafy green plant that originates from the sunflower. The stevia plant is found in Paraguay and Brazil. The plant contains several steviol glycosides, which have been estimated to be 200-300 times as sweet as sugar. The sweetness is taken from the leaves through a process of extraction, filtration and dehydration.
Stevia in its raw form is not approved for use as a food additive by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, in 2008 the FDA approved one of the forms of stevia, Rebaudioside A (Reb-A). This means that most foods currently being sold in the grocery store labeled as "stevia" and approved for consumption are probably purified extracts of Reb-A. Stevia leaf extract consumed in amounts below the Acceptable Daily Intake of 12 mg highly purified extract/kg body weight has been considered safe by the FDA.
Stevia and Health
Weight Management: Some randomized controlled trials have suggested that substituting foods and fluids containing sweeteners with nonnutritive sweeteners, such as stevia, resulted in modest weight loss. More research on this topic is needed.
Cancer: Stevia has been determined to be noncarcinogenic. Some studies suggest that the compounds it contains may act as antioxidants with anticarcinogenic effects.
Diabetes: Studies have found no negative effects on blood glucose levels, and stevia has been recognized as safe for people with diabetes.
Gut Health: Studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Splenda) may affect the balance between "good" and "bad" bacteria in the colon, which could have a negative impact on health. It's unknown whether stevia may have the same effect in either mice or humans.
Bottom line: Stevia is still a relatively new addition to the nonnutritive sweetener market and more research is needed before we know what the long-term effects may be—beneficial or not. But, based on what's known right now, stevia sweetener is considered a safe choice for those trying to curb their sugar intake.
Written by: Jackie Santiago, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern