What is stevia and is it healthy?

From the desk of
Robb Wolf
ScienceWhat is stevia and is it healthy?

I’ve fielded multiple questions about stevia on my podcast, The Healthy Rebellion Radio. One person was concerned about plant toxins, while another worried that stevia functioned as a steroid.

As someone on a carnivore-ish diet, I get it. Too many plants can be a bad thing for some people. For example, the active ingredient in licorice (glycyrrhetic acid) can elevate blood pressure and cause cardiac arrhythmias when consumed in excess. I could name a bunch of other examples like this.

But I’m not a dogmatic carnivore, and I don’t believe all plant foods are evil. In fact, my bias leans towards working some fruits and veggies into your diet if you can tolerate them. If you handle other plant material, by all means, include those too.

Still, if your body doesn’t tolerate them, that’s okay. You can get most of those nutrients from meat and offal. But avoiding plants as a matter of principle never made sense to me.

On that note, today I’m writing about stevia: the plant-based sweetener we use in LMNT (our no-sugar electrolyte drink mix). Like sugar, stevia is primarily used as a sweetener. But unlike sugar, it’s not making people sick, obese, and metabolically unwell.

Actually, stevia has some interesting anti-diabetic and antioxidant effects—I’ll get into these later. Compared to sugar, stevia cultivation is also better for the environment. And if you’ve read my latest book, Sacred Cow, you know that matters A LOT to me.

But don’t worry, this article won’t be an ad for stevia. Stevia—like just about anything else—has downsides, such as the potential to overeat stevia-sweetened foods. Try eating JUST one square of stevia-sweetened chocolate. It can feel near impossible to not eat the whole bar!

Anyway, I’m going to be as objective as possible today. Let’s get to know stevia a little better, shall we?

What Is Stevia?

A couple centuries ago, the natives of South America started satisfying their collective sweet tooth by chewing on the leaves of a local shrub. They didn’t know why the leaves of this plant tasted so good, but boy did they taste good.

Decades later, in 1905, this plant was given a name by Westerners: stevia rebaudiana. Stevia’s sweetness, it was later discovered, comes from compounds called steviol glycosides within the leaves of the plant. Through a multi-step process, these glycosides can be extracted to make the zero calorie sweetener that we call stevia.

The active glycosides within the stevia leaf include:

  • Stevioside
  • Rebaudioside A
  • Rebaudioside C
  • Dulcoside

Each of these glycosides is somewhere between 50 and 400 times sweeter than sucrose, or common table sugar. In other words, you don’t need much stevia to sweeten your hot cocoa.

Does all that sweetness induce massive cravings, causing subsequent overeating? This is a common concern about stevia. To address it, let’s review a well-designed study from 2010.

In the study, participants were fed one of three pre-meal snacks: a sugar-sweetened snack, an aspartame-sweetened snack, and a stevia-sweetened snack. After the snack, the participants were turned loose on a buffet. No restrictions.

The results were telling. The stevia and aspartame groups did not overcompensate at the buffet. In fact, they ate less total calories than the sugar group.

Wait a minute, Robb. Are you saying I should eat aspartame?

Well, a little aspartame probably won’t give you cancer, but the research linking diet soda consumption to type 2 diabetes is troubling. So no, I’m not a big fan of artificial sweeteners, but I’ll go out on a limb and say they are better than sugar.

Stevia, however, appears to be helpful for diabetics. In fact, it has a long history of treating diabetes amongst the natives in Paraguay and Brazil.

Stevioside in particular has been researched extensively for its blood-sugar lowering properties, probably due its ability to provoke a small (yet effective) insulin response in the midst of high blood sugar concentrations.

Let’s talk a little more about this research now.

Potential Health Benefits of Stevia

When you look at the literature, you could make the case that stevia is a health-food. I’m not quite there yet, but I am intrigued. Here’s what’s been researched, benefits-wise:

#1: Anti-diabetic Effects

The defining clinical feature of type 2 diabetes is high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia. This hyperglycemia is exacerbated by another feature of type 2 diabetes: insulin resistance.

When someone is insulin resistant, insulin (the blood sugar boss hormone) can’t effectively store blood sugar as glycogen. This means that blood sugar stays high—not a healthy situation.

Stevia isn’t a diabetes cure, but it does appear to have blood-sugar lowering properties. In the snack study I spoke about earlier, stevia improved the post-meal glycemic and insulin responses compared to controls.

The insulin piece is super interesting. At high blood sugar concentrations, stevioside stimulates insulin release from the pancreas, which helps bring blood sugar back down.

But when blood sugar is in normal ranges (below 150 mg/dl, according to this study), stevia appears to know better, and doesn’t have the same insulin-stimulating effect. To be clear, this was in vitro data (in cells, not animals), but it’s still fascinating.

#2: Antioxidant Effects

Stevia is rich in plant compounds called phenols. These phenols, research suggests, can reduce the oxidative stress that builds up as we age.

Some oxidative stress is normal. It’s part of living, breathing, and moving. But when too many reactive oxygen species (ROS) are produced, it’s bad news for disease risk.

The trick is to find a balance. Don’t slam antioxidants like Kobayashi slams hot dogs—but don’t discount their potential benefits, either.

#3: Anti-inflammatory Effects

Heard of TNFα? TNFα, or tumor necrosis factor alpha, is an immune-signaling particle that tends to reside in fat tissue. Some TNFα is healthy, but excess levels of this particle are linked to heart disease, cancer, and many other chronic diseases.

In diabetics, excess TNFα decreases insulin sensitivity. How? By reducing the activity of GLUT 4 transporters that bring sugar into muscle and liver cells.

In mice, stevioside lowered TNFα, reduced inflammation in fat tissue, and increased insulin sensitivity. Stevioside was also found to reduce circulating levels of interleukin 6 (IL6) and interleukin 10 (IL10)—two inflammatory cytokines that, along with TNFα, are tied to chronic inflammation.

#4: Oral health

A six-month randomized controlled trial on school children in India found that a stevia mouthwash had both antiplaque and antigingivitis effects. This is a stark contrast from sugar, which promotes the growth of cavity-causing bacteria like Streptococcus mutans.

The Sustainability of Stevia

As a species, we need to get our act together when it comes to the use and misuse of resources. I talk about this in Sacred Cow, arguing that eating properly raised meat is a net positive for the planet. Farming livestock the right way is a form of regenerative agriculture.

Is Sacred Stevia my next book? I don’t think so, but I’m definitely a fan of stevia’s sustainability, especially compared to sugar.

Let’s start with carbon footprint, or the amount of carbon-based pollution—like carbon dioxide—that’s spewed out by a given process, tip to tail. To produce the same sweetening effect, humans emit 64% more carbon producing cane sugar than we emit making stevia. Score one for stevia.

Now on to water footprint, or the amount of water needed to make a given sweetener. Again, to get the same level of sweetness, we use 95% more water producing cane sugar than we use producing stevia. Stevia wins again.

Listen, I’m not saying that stevia is going to save the environment. But in most cases, the best one can do is choose the best alternative. And compared to sugar and artificial sweeteners, stevia is a pretty darn good one.

Stevia Concerns and Side Effects

Some people worry that eating stevia dysregulates appetite and drives subsequent overeating. But as we saw earlier, this concern didn’t pan out in a controlled setting.

A related concern is that, since stevia-sweetened foods are often hyperpalatable, you might overeat those foods. I take this concern a bit more seriously.

I’ve had stevia-sweetened chocolate, and… yeah. It’s tough not to wolf down the whole bar in one sitting. So I kinda just keep them out of the house.

There aren’t many side effects of stevia to speak of, besides the rare report of digestive distress. Super high doses impair fertility in rats, but this is unlikely to translate to humans.

And we can also take comfort in the fact that stevia is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. After reviewing over 200 human and animal studies, the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for high-purity stevia extract was set at 4 milligrams per kilogram body weight.

The ADI, in case you were wondering, is the daily dose of a substance one could consume over the course of their life without causing themselves harm. To reach stevia’s ADI, a 150 lb woman would need to consume about 40 tabletop packets of stevia per day, every day, for the rest of her life.

The takeaway? Used in reasonable quantities, stevia appears very safe for human consumption.

Is Stevia Healthy?

In general, I’d say yes. But that doesn’t mean stevia is for everyone.

I think the majority of people will tolerate stevia just fine, and maybe even benefit from it. But some super sensitive folks feel better when they cut it out. Depends on your unique physiology.

Anyways, if you’re craving sweetness in your life—on a low-carb or keto diet, for instance—I encourage you to give stevia a try. It’s a nice way to get the taste of sugar without the downsides.

Speaking of sugar’s downsides, there are many. Check out some of our other articles below to learn more about sugar:

Or learn more about various alternatives to sugar, like stevia, here:

Thanks for reading!

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