Stevia is growing in popularity as a plant-based, calorie-free alternative to sugar.

Many people prefer it to artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame, as it’s extracted from a plant rather than made in a lab.

It also contains little to no carbs and doesn’t rapidly spike your blood sugar, making it popular among those who have diabetes or poor blood sugar control. Nonetheless, it may have some drawbacks.

This article reviews stevia, including its benefits, downsides, and potential as a sugar substitute.

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Stevia is a sugar alternative extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant.

These leaves have been enjoyed for their sweetness and used as an herbal medicine to treat high blood sugar for hundreds of years (1).

Their sweet taste comes from steviol glycoside molecules, which are 250–300 times sweeter than regular sugar (2).

To make stevia sweeteners, the glycosides must be extracted from the leaves. Beginning with dry leaves that have been steeped in water, the process is as follows (2):

  1. Leaf particles are filtered out from the liquid.
  2. The liquid is treated with activated carbon to remove additional organic matter.
  3. The liquid undergoes an ion exchange treatment to remove minerals and metals.
  4. The glycosides that remain are concentrated into a resin.

What remains is concentrated stevia leaf extract, which is spray dried and ready to be processed into sweeteners (2).

The extract is usually sold as a highly concentrated liquid or in single-serve packets, both of which are only needed in very small amounts to sweeten food or drinks.

Stevia-based sugar equivalents are also available. These products contain fillers like maltodextrin but have the same volume and sweetening power as sugar, with none of the calories or carbs. They can be used as a 1:1 replacement in baking and cooking (3).

Keep in mind that many stevia products contain additional ingredients, such as fillers, sugar alcohols, other sweeteners, and natural flavors.

If you want to avoid these ingredients, you should seek out products that list only 100% stevia extract on the label.

Stevia nutrition facts

Stevia is essentially calorie- and carb-free. Because it’s so much sweeter than sugar, the small amounts used add no meaningful calories or carbs to your diet (4).

Though stevia leaves contain various vitamins and minerals, most of them are lost when the plant is processed into a sweetener (2).

Furthermore, as some stevia products contain additional ingredients, nutrient contents may vary.

Summary Stevia leaves can be processed into liquid or powdered stevia extract, which is much sweeter than sugar. The extract is virtually calorie- and carb-free and contains only trace amounts of minerals.

Stevia leaves have been used for medicinal purposes for many centuries, and the extract has been linked to decreased blood sugar and blood fat levels in animal studies. The sweetener may also aid weight loss.

Nonetheless, the extract also has potential downsides.

Benefits of stevia

Though it’s a relatively new sweetener, stevia has been linked to several health benefits.

Because it’s calorie-free, it may help you lose weight when used as a replacement for regular sugar, which provides about 45 calories per tablespoon (12 grams). Stevia may also help you stay full on fewer calories (5).

In a study in 31 adults, those who ate a 290-calorie snack made with stevia ate the same amount of food at the next meal as those who ate a 500-calorie snack made with sugar (6).

They also reported similar fullness levels, meaning the stevia group had an overall lower calorie intake while feeling the same satisfaction (6).

Additionally, in a mouse study, exposure to the steviol glycoside rebaudioside A caused an increase in several appetite-suppressing hormones (7).

The sweetener may also help you manage your blood sugar.

In a study in 12 adults, those who ate a coconut dessert made with 50% stevia and 50% sugar had 16% lower blood sugar levels after eating than those who had the same dessert made with 100% sugar (8).

In animal studies, stevia has been shown to improve sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that lowers blood sugar by allowing it into cells to be used for energy (9, 10).

What’s more, some animal research has linked stevia consumption to decreased triglycerides and increased HDL (good) cholesterol levels, both of which are associated with reduced heart disease risk (11, 12, 13).

Possible downsides

Though stevia may offer benefits, it has downsides as well.

While it’s plant-based and may seem more natural than other zero-calorie sweeteners, it’s still a highly refined product. Stevia blends often contain added fillers like maltodextrin, which has been linked to dysregulation of healthy gut bacteria (14).

Stevia itself may also harm your gut bacteria. In a test-tube study, rebaudioside A, one of the most common steviol glycosides in stevia sweeteners, inhibited the growth of a beneficial strain of gut bacteria by 83% (2, 15).

Moreover, because it’s so much sweeter than sugar, stevia is considered an intense sweetener. Some researchers believe that intense sweeteners may increase cravings for sweet foods (16, 17).

Additionally, many observational studies have found no link between the consumption of zero-calorie sweeteners and improvements in body weight, calorie intake, or risk of type 2 diabetes (16, 18).

Furthermore, stevia and other zero-calorie sweeteners may still cause an insulin response, simply due to their sweet taste, even if they don’t increase blood sugar levels (19, 20).

Keep in mind that as stevia sweeteners have only recently become widely available, research on their long-term health effects is limited.

Summary Stevia may help manage your weight and blood sugar levels, and animal studies show that it may improve heart disease risk factors. However, it’s an intense sweetener that could negatively affect your health.

Stevia has fewer calories than sugar and may play a role in weight management by helping you eat fewer calories.

Because it’s free of calories and carbs, it’s a great sugar alternative for people on low-calorie or low-carb diets.

Replacing sugar with stevia also reduces the Glycemic Index (GI) of foods, meaning that they affect blood sugar levels to a lesser extent (8, 21).

Whereas table sugar has a GI of 65 — with 100 being the highest GI, causing the most rapid rise in blood sugar — stevia contains nothing that increases blood sugar and thus has a GI of 0 (22).

Sugar and its many forms, including sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), have been linked to inflammation, obesity, and the development of chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease (23, 24, 25).

Therefore, it’s generally recommended to limit your intake of added sugar. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans stipulate that added sugars should account for no more than 10% of your daily calories (26).

For optimal health and blood sugar control, this amount should be limited even further (27).

Because sugar has been linked to many negative health effects, replacing sugar with stevia may be advisable. Still, the long-term effects of frequently consuming stevia are unknown.

Though using small amounts of this zero-calorie sweetener may be a healthy way to decrease sugar intake, it’s best to use less sugar and fewer sugar substitutes overall and simply opt for natural sources of sweetness, such as fruits, whenever possible.

Summary Stevia has a lower GI than table sugar, and using it may be a healthy way to reduce your calorie and added sugar intakes. Added sugars should be limited to less than 10% of your daily calories.

Stevia is now widely used as a sugar replacement in home cooking and food manufacturing.

However, one of the biggest problems with stevia is its bitter aftertaste. Food scientists are working on developing new methods of stevia extraction and processing to help remedy this (28, 29).

What’s more, sugar undergoes a unique process called the Maillard reaction during cooking, which allows foods that contain sugar to caramelize and turn golden brown. Sugar also adds structure and bulk to baked goods (30, 31).

When sugar is completely replaced with stevia, baked goods may not have the same look or feel as a sugar-containing version.

Despite these issues, stevia works well in most foods and drinks as a replacement for sugar, though a blend of sugar and stevia is usually the most peferable in terms of taste (8, 21, 32, 33).

When baking with stevia, it’s best to use a 1:1 stevia-based sugar replacement. Using more concentrated forms, such as liquid extract, will require you to alter the amounts of other ingredients to account for losses in bulk.

Summary Stevia sometimes has a bitter aftertaste and doesn’t possess all of the physical properties of sugar during cooking. Nevertheless, it’s an acceptable sugar substitute and tastes best when used in combination with sugar.

Stevia is a plant-based, zero-calorie sweetener.

It may reduce calorie intake when used to replace sugar and benefit blood sugar control and heart health. Still, these benefits are not fully proven, and research on its long-term effects is lacking.

For optimal health, keep both sugar and stevia to a minimum.