Why is it that the global market for stevia will soon be a half-billion dollar industry? (1) According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes a whopping 150 – 170 pounds of refined sugar every year (2) but more and more people are becoming aware of the health issues surrounding sugar, and therefore switching to stevia and other natural sweeteners.
What’s the Problem with Sugar?
The exorbitant intake of sugar creates massive health havoc. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research shows 36.5 percent of Americans are obese, setting the stage for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. (3)
Among the 29.1 million people (over nine percent) of Americans who have diabetes, the CDC reports almost 28 percent don’t know they have this potentially deadly disease. (4)
These and similar statistics show our love of all things sweet has created serious health problems that, unless we dial down sugar consumption, will only become worse.
In the past, experts recommended caloric-free artificial sweeteners to replace sugar because they arguably have no effect on blood sugar, supposedly making them ideal for weight loss and diabetes.
Today, we know that isn’t true, and current studies conclude artificial sweeteners – just like the real stuff – contributes to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. (5)
In fact, several animal studies show artificial sweeteners create weight gain as well as diverse health problems including brain tumors, bladder cancer, and nervous system damage. (6)
Researchers specifically find the artificial sweetener aspartame can increase susceptibility to seizures as well as adversely impacting behavior, mood, and cognitive function. (6)
Likewise, Splenda (sucralose) can alter gut bacteria, exacerbate inflammation, and adversely affect glucose metabolism, leading to insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes. (7)
So much for artificial sweeteners proving better than the real stuff!
A Sweet Alternative?
You’re cutting down on sugar, you’ve permanently banned artificial sweeteners, but you want to sweeten your coffee or tea. You might opt for honey or agave, but these and other “healthy” sweeteners more or less behave like sugar with all its detrimental consequences.
Fortunately, natural alternative sweeteners make a “sweet” alternative.
Popular among them is stevia rebaudiana or stevia, an herb that grows in North and South America. Its white crystalline compound, called a stevioside, has zero calories and is about 100 – 300 times sweeter than table sugar. (8)
A systematic literature review found stevia superior to other high-potency sweeteners, especially benefiting people with Type 2 diabetes, those interested in decreasing caloric intake, and children. (8)
Among its benefits, studies show steviol and isosteviol – the metabolic components of stevioside – offer anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immune-boosting benefits. (9)
For folks with Type 2 diabetes or blood sugar imbalances (that includes most of us), researchers find stevia can enhance glucose intolerance and improve metabolic syndrome. (7) Other studies show stevia might help prevent cardiovascular diseases in patients with long-standing diabetes. (10)
In rats, researchers find stevia can become an antioxidant-rich sweetener to optimize blood sugar. (11) Because of those blood sugar-stabilizing effects, stevia can lower oxidative stress and potentially liver and kidney damage. (12)
With these and other benefits, you might conclude stevia becomes the perfect sweetener alternative. Yet a 1985 study that showed stevia could be a mutagen in rats and created potential liver problems. (17) In 1993, researchers debunked that study as flawed, arguing limited amounts of stevia aren’t dangerous. (18)
Regardless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stuck with the “unsafe food additive” label they gave stevia in 1991. They only allowed stevia products to be sold as dietary supplements rather than sweeteners. (19)
So how do commercial sweeteners get away with selling stevia as a sweetener? They actually use rebaudioside A, derived from the stevia plant. The FDA claims rebaudioside A is not stevia but “a highly purified product.” (20)
Weighing Your Sweetener Options
If you’ve recently purchased stevia or other healthy sweeteners but felt confused, you’re not alone: Navigating the ever-increasing amount of natural alternative sweeteners at your supermarket or health food store can become a challenge.
If you opt for stevia, your best option becomes a 100 percent pure, organic stevia with no additives. Read labels very carefully: Many commercial and even better brands add dextrose (sugar), lactose (dairy), maltodextrin (corn), and other bulking agents. You don’t want those in your stevia.
Taste becomes another factor. Stevia might initially taste bitter, yet one review found artificial sweeteners taste bitterer than stevia and other natural alternative sweeteners. Of course, this differs among individuals who have different genetic bitterness receptors. (21)
Because stevia is so much sweeter than sugar, it could potentially alter your taste buds to become more sugar-adapted. This intense sweetness can hijack your biochemistry, potentially craving sweet-tasting foods. (22)
Zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia can also create something called caloric dysregulation, confusing your body because the sweetness degree no longer matches its caloric load, potentially triggering cravings and overeating.
Those caveats aside, unless a patient is incredibly sugar sensitive, I find a little pure organic stevia in, say, your morning dark roast works just fine. Adding too much will create a wince-inducing bitterness, so go easy!
Other Natural Sweetener Alternatives
Even with the tiniest amount, some patients find stevia unpalatable. If that’s you, consider other natural alternative sweeteners.
Monk fruit, used in China for thousands of years to alleviate various conditions including sore throats and phlegm build-up, provides an antioxidant-rich sweetener that, like stevia, offers potential blood sugar-balancing and other health benefits. (23)
Sugar alcohols provide another smart sweetener alternative. Researchers find in rats with Type 2 diabetes, the sugar alcohol xylitol can optimize blood glucose, glucose tolerance, insulin levels, and lipid profile. (24) Other studies show xylitol can prevent tooth caries and improve oral health. (25)
Be aware excess amounts of these and other sugar alcohols like maltitol can create a laxative – AKA “I’ve got to run to the bathroom right now!” – effect, so proceed accordingly.
Manufacturers often combine monk fruit with sugar alcohols. That’s perfectly fine. Just be aware that, like stevia, they sometimes add undesirable bulking agents, so read your labels carefully and only buy reputable brands.
There’s No Free Ride
Used sparingly, stevia and natural alternative sweeteners make a smart, potentially health-benefiting alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners for most people. Be aware if you’re incredibly sugar sensitive, even small amounts can create hunger, cravings, and overeating, so proceed accordingly.
Eventually, I encourage patients to taper off all sweeteners and appreciate the natural sweetness of, say, cinnamon or vanilla. Many former sugar addicts express surprise when former favorite foods suddenly become far too sweet and unpalatable, and suddenly foods like almonds reveal their natural sweetness.
Have you found stevia or other natural alternative sweeteners help you edge out sugar and artificial sweeteners? If so, what’s your preferred sweetener? Do you find these sweeteners taste bitter or have other drawbacks? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook page.