What is Stevia?
Stevia is an herbal plant that is closely related to chrysanthemums and marigolds. It’s been used as a sweetener and sugar substitute for centuries by people in Paraguay and Brazil. And because it’s over 200 times sweeter than sugar, you only need a little bit of stevia to achieve your desired level of sweetness.
Over the past 10 years or so, stevia has grown in popularity because of its potent sweetness— while being zero calories. More recently, it’s been in the spotlight regarding its safety and effectiveness.
It can be hard to wade through all of the information, let's break it down! What do we know about stevia? And what do the studies show?
What do the studies say?
1. Stevia has Been Used and Studied for Centuries.
Stevia has been used since ancient times and was introduced in Europe in the 16th century. It was in the 1800s when Stevia started gaining popularity, leading to its cultivation in large quantities in Paraguay and Brazil in the 1920s. Due to rising health concerns from artificial sweeteners like saccharin, stevia was introduced as a sweetener in Japan in the 1970s. Since then, Japan has been used and studied for its health benefits for decades. Today Japan accounts for about 40% of the world’s stevia consumption. Although certainly not a direct correlation, it is interesting to note that Japan leads the world with the highest life expectancy.
2. Stevia and the Obesity Epidemic
Did you know that added sugars represent a significant portion of the U.S. diet? Sugar contributes 13.1% to 17.5% of total daily energy (calories) among children and 11.2% to 14.5% of daily calories among adults.
Excessive consumption of added sugars through soda, processed foods, and foods with hidden sugar has been associated with the U.S. obesity epidemic which seems to be plaguing the country. Stevia can be a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth without the extra calories.
3. Stevia Does Not Affect Blood Sugar
One of my favorite benefits of stevia is that its affect blood sugar. A recent study found that stevia does not contribute to increased glucose and insulin levels. This is important because 38 million Americans struggle with diabetes (90-95% of these being Type-2 diabetics), and many more struggle with insulin resistance ( 38% of Americans being pre-diabetic). Using stevia instead of sugar can help regulate blood sugar and prevent blood glucose spikes.
Reducing blood sugar spikes can be a great way to increase insulin sensitivity and reverse pre-diabetic symptoms. While stevia is not the only solution, it is an easy way to support you along your journey!
5. Stevia and Weight Loss
Multiple studies have found associations between stevia and weight loss. Some sweeteners, like sugar, increase the amount of food eaten. Stevia has actually been found to have the opposite effect, reducing appetite sensation. One study found that sweetening with stevia did not promote an increase in the amount of food
people ate. Simply stated, because stevia can help to reduce sugar intake and can help manage insulin resistance, it may help promote weight loss. Although it is not a weight loss mechanism itself, it may influence other factors contributing to weight gain.
6. Stevia and Anticancer properties
Stevia has been shown to block the growth and spread of certain cancer cells. One study in particular showed that stevia extract killed breast cancer cells. Another study found that steviol (a component of stevia) stopped the growth and spread of Gastrointestinal cancer cells. Both of these cancers were among the top 5 most diagnosed as well as the most deadly malignancies in 2020. Not only did certain stevia compounds kill these types of cancer cells and slow tumor growth, but stevia has also been shown to balance blood sugar, reduce oxidative stress, reduce inflammation, and reduce obesity, all of which are risk factors for many types of cancer. There is still a lot to learn regarding stevia and cancer, but the information we have so far is very interesting and promising.
7. Stevia and the Gut
We are beginning to understand more and more about the negative impacts of artificial sweeteners on gut health and the damage they cause to the gut lining. Interestingly enough, Stevia has been found to have a positive impact on certain probiotic bacteria strains.
I am excited for more research and studies to be done so we can more fully understand what stevia is doing in our gut. One thing I love is that studies are showing stevia does not cause inflammation to the gut like artificial sweeteners and sugar, which is definitely a plus!
7. Stevia and Fertility
You may have seen the recent viral reels stating that stevia has affected fertility in rats. This information is according to a 1960 study that found that stevia extract reduced the fertility of rats by up to 21%, compared to the control group of rats. In the stevia-treated rats, a decrease in the relative weight of seminal vesicles and testis was observed, as well as a decrease in the number of sperm stored.
Although at first, this is surprising and even scary, it is important to note that the author of the study later admitted that the rats were given such a high dose of stevia that infertility could have been caused by overdose. It is also important to note that the amount of stevia issued to the rats would not really be possible to consume in such a large amount in that short of time. The study author also admitted there was no evidence to show the reaction would be duplicated in humans.
Later studies were performed to see if the findings could be repeated. These studies gave stevia to rats and found no effect on reproduction, pregnancy, or litter size compared to the control groups. These study authors concluded that “there is no substantial evidence to support the claim that stevia can or does cause a decrease in fertility for either men or women.”
It is also important to remember that PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) is one of the highest drivers of infertility, and one of the greatest drivers of PCOS is insulin resistance. One great way to reduce insulin resistance is by managing blood sugar which can be done with stevia. Simply put, stevia could be a tool to help manage insulin resistance in those with PCOS, which has a greater known effect on fertility.
One important thing to address is that not all stevia is created equal. Stevia starts as a leaf, but many stevias go through a long and complicated 42-step process. This process can involve chemical extractants and adding GMO corn byproducts like erythritol. This process strips stevia of its whole-food status. One study that tested six commercial products of stevia found that “three of the commercial Stevia products were counterfeit products. They also contained sodium cyclamate and small amounts of sodium saccharin.”
At Just Ingredients, we take whole stevia leaves, dehydrate them, and extract the sweetness through a cold water press, maintaining its whole-food ingredient status. We use pure stevia in combination with monk fruit with no added erythritol. This combination of sweeteners makes our drinks sweet without chemical processes, creating a delicious product!
After sifting through much of the research, I feel confident in using stevia in my products and consuming it regularly. The data and studies are in favor of stevia and as someone who is incredibly selective about what I put in my body, I have no issues with stevia. I’m grateful for stevia and its ability to help regulate blood sugar levels while providing a sweet treat!