Stevia comes from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, which is a member of the chrysanthemum family, a subgroup of the Asteraceae family (ragweed family). There’s a big difference between the stevia you buy at the grocery store and the stevia you may grow at home.
Stevia products found on grocery store shelves, such as Truvia and Stevia in the Raw, don’t contain whole stevia leaf. They’re made from a highly refined stevia leaf extract called rebaudioside A (Reb-A). In fact, many stevia products have very little stevia in them at all. Though, Reb-A is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar, so not much is needed.
Reb-A sweeteners are considered “novel sweeteners” because they’re a blend of different sweeteners, such as Reb-A, erythritol (a sugar alcohol), and dextrose (glucose).
Some stevia brands also contain natural flavors. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t object to the term “natural flavors” if the related ingredients have no added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetics. Still, ingredients that fall under the “natural flavor” umbrella may be highly processed. Many argue this means there’s nothing natural about them.
You can grow stevia plants at home and use the leaves to sweeten foods and beverages. Reb-A sweeteners are available in liquid, powder, and granulated forms. For purposes of this article, “stevia” refers to Reb-A products.
Stevia is a nonnutritive sweetener. This means it has almost no calories. If you’re trying to lose weight, this aspect may be appealing. Some research has shown that substituting nonnutritive sweeteners for table sugar in drinks may help you shed excess pounds and maintain a healthy body weight. However, to date, research is inconclusive. The impact of nonnutritive sweeteners an individual’s health may depend on how much of it is consumed throughout the day and when.
If you have diabetes, stevia and other nonnutritive sweeteners may help keep your blood sugar levels in check. One 2010 study of 19 healthy, lean participants and 12 obese participants found that stevia significantly lowered insulin and glucose levels. It also left study participants satisfied and full after eating, despite the lower calorie intake.
And according to a 2009 study, stevia may help manage cholesterol. Study participants consumed 400 milliliters of stevia extract daily for one month. The study found stevia lowered total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides with no negative side effects. It also increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol. It’s unclear if occasional stevia use in lower amounts would have the same impact.
The FDA says stevia glycosides, such as Reb-A, are “generally recognized as safe.” They haven’t approved whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extract for use in processed foods and beverages due to a lack of safety information.
There’s concern that raw stevia herb may harm your kidneys, reproductive system, and cardiovascular system. It may also drop blood pressure too low or interact with medications that lower blood sugar.
Although stevia is considered safe for people with diabetes, brands that contain dextrose or maltodextrin should be treated with caution. Dextrose is glucose, and maltodextrin is a starch. These ingredients add small amounts of carbs and calories. Sugar alcohols may also slightly tip the carb count. If you use stevia now and then, it may not be enough to impact your blood sugar. But if you use it throughout the day, the carbs add up.
As with most nonnutritive sweeteners, a major downside is the taste. Stevia has a mild, licorice-like taste that’s slightly bitter. Some people enjoy it, but it’s a turn-off for others.
In some people, stevia products made with sugar alcohols may cause digestive problems, such as bloating and diarrhea.
Stevia made with Reb-A is safe to use in moderation during pregnancy. If you’re sensitive to sugar alcohols, choose a brand that doesn’t contain erythritol.
Whole-leaf stevia and crude stevia extract, including stevia you’ve grown at home, are not safe to use if you’re pregnant.
It may seem strange that a highly-refined product is considered safer than a natural one. This is a common mystery with herbal products. In this case, Reb-A has been evaluated for safety during pregnancy and otherwise. Stevia in its natural form hasn’t. There’s not enough evidence so far that whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extract won’t harm your pregnancy.
Stevia and cancer
There’s some evidence to suggest that stevia may help fight or prevent some types of cancer.
According to a 2012 study, a glycoside called stevioside found in stevia plants helps boost cancer cell death in a human breast cancer line. Stevioside may also help decrease some mitochondrial pathways that help cancer grow.
A 2013 study supported these findings. It found that many stevia glycoside derivatives were toxic to specific leukemia, lung, stomach, and breast cancer cell lines.
Stevia may be used in place of table sugar in your favorite foods and beverages. A pinch of stevia powder is equal to about one teaspoon of table sugar.
Tasty ways to use stevia include:
- in coffee or tea
- in homemade lemonade
- sprinkled on hot or cold cereal
- in a smoothie
- sprinkled on unsweetened yogurt
Some stevia brands, such as Stevia in the Raw, can replace table sugar teaspoon for teaspoon, unless you’re using it in baked goods. You can bake with stevia, although it may give cakes and cookies a licorice aftertaste. Stevia in the Raw recommends replacing half the total amount of sugar in your recipe with their product.
Other brands aren’t made specifically for baking, so you’ll need to use less. You should add extra liquid or a bulking ingredient such as applesauce or mashed bananas to your recipe to make up for the lost sugar. It may take some trial and error to get the texture and level of sweetness you like.
Stevia products made with Reb-A are considered safe, even for people who are pregnant or who have diabetes. These products rarely cause side effects, and they may even help you lose weight and manage your blood sugar.
Whole-leaf stevia isn’t approved for commercial use, but you can still grow it for home use. Despite a lack of research, many people claim whole-leaf stevia is a safe alternative to its highly-refined counterpart or table sugar.
While adding a raw stevia leaf to a cup of tea now and then is unlikely to cause harm, you shouldn’t use it if you’re pregnant. Until research determines whether whole-leaf stevia is safe for everyone, get your doctor’s approval before using regularly, especially if you have a serious medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.