I’m sure you’ve all seen the numerous sweeteners that are lined up on the grocery aisle, not to mention the rainbow of packets on restaurant tables. You’ve got the yellow ones, the blue ones, the pink ones, but it’s the white ones that must be the worst, right? Not so fast.
We may still have more questions than answers, but here’s what we have found through various sources about the latest sweetener on the market — Stevia.
Stevia is a leafy green plant that is native to South America. Through processing, two sweet compounds are isolated from the leaves: Stevioside and Rebaudioside A. These two compounds are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Most of the studies and products on the market use stevioside, which is on the isolated sweet compounds.
Not only is stevioside naturally sweet, research has shown that it also has some health benefits. In one particular study, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 174 patients took either 500 mg of stevioside or placebo, 3 times per day. These were the results after two years in the group taking stevioside:
- Systolic blood pressure: went from 150 to 140 mmHg.
- Diastolic blood pressure: went from 95 down to 89 mmHg.
In this study, the stevioside group also had a lower risk of Left Ventricular Hypertrophy, an enlarging of the heart that can be caused by elevated blood pressure. The stevioside group also had improved quality of life.
Stevia has also been studied in diabetic patients with impressive results. In one of the studies, type 2 diabetic patients took either 1 gram of stevioside with a meal, or 1 gram of maize starch.
The group taking stevioside had a reduction in blood sugar by about 18%.
Another study compared sucrose (regular sugar), aspartame and stevia. It found that stevia lowered both blood sugar and insulin levels after a meal, compared to the other two sweeteners.
Stevioside was found to be nontoxic in acute toxicity studies in a variety of laboratory animals and no major contraindications, warnings, or adverse reactions have been documented.
And, in 2008, the FDA declared that stevia was safe in foods and beverages. The U.S. may see numerous companies incorporate it into their products since there is considerable consumer interest in natural, low-, or no-calorie sweeteners.
Since stevia comes from an herb and not a chemical, it’s the safest option out there if you want to avoid sugar completely. Though coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave, molasses, and cane syrup may be more natural, they all still raise the glycemic index number. Stevia on the other hand, (in a very pure form) does not raise the glycemic index and has been helpful for those dealing with high blood sugar that don’t want to turn to artificial sweeteners.
If you want to purchase stevia and want the purest product possible, always buy a powdered product that is 100 percent pure stevia extract (not stevia powder, which indicates it is a blend and not pure extract.) It isn’t cheap to say the least, and it is hard to find in stores. However, it does taste the best and is the cleanest option possible. Another good choice is to choose pure liquid stevia and choose alcohol-free versions if possible. This will ensure the product won’t cause any glycemic or digestive issues or trigger any possible reactions.
According to Prevention magazine, these are the top five Stevia sweeteners on the market (starting with number 5):
5. Stevia in the Raw Zero Calorie Sweetener
3. NOW Foods Organic Better Stevia Extract Powder
2. SweetLeaf Natural Stevia Sweetener
1. NuNaturals NuStevia White Stevia Powder
You can add it to your smoothie, yogurt, tea, coffee and other beverages. It is also a good sugar substitute for baking. When it comes to baking with stevia, many people mix it with erythritol, another natural low-calorie sweetener that is much bulkier.
However, after much research, most all of the above mentioned stevia sweetener brands are chemically processed and may contain additives that remove the aftertaste of pure Stevia.
The best advice is to read all labels for content on the products you’ll find in the grocery store. If you are trying to lose weight, reducing all sweeteners in your diet is the best way to go. Artificial sweeteners are 30 to 300 times sweeter than sugar which could increase your sugar cravings. This can lead to naturally sweet, whole foods like apples being not sweet enough to some people.
One particular study that followed thousands of residents of San Antonio for 10 years found those who drank more than 21 servings of diet drinks a week were at twice the risk of becoming overweight or obese, and the more diet soda people drank, the greater the risk.
“Until we know more, we should use nonnutritive sweeteners in moderation. It should be a treat to have a diet soda, not something you drink all day long,” said M. Yanina Pepino, an assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine’s Center for Human Nutrition.
“Table sugar and modified sugars could be less safe than sweeteners if you consider that they increase calorie intake and increase blood sugar levels,” Dr. Kumar says. “For someone trying to control blood sugar and/or lose weight, sweeteners can have a role as a sugar replacement.” Ultimately, though, if you can stomach it, NO soda of any kind is your best bet, especially with the science still out on artificial sweeteners and their link with obesity.
So which one is better?
Conventional wisdom still holds; moderation is key both with artificial sweeteners and natural sugars. For someone looking to lose weight, artificial sweeteners are probably your best bet.
But for overall health, table sugar or natural sugar is the way to go — just not too much of it! “Artificial sweeteners have recent medical studies showing safety, but table sugar has centuries of chemical safety data,” adds Dr. Kumar. “We have a lot of long-term safety data for table sugar, but it should be used in moderation.” Try and avoid modified sugars such as high fructose corn syrup and agave nectar; they’re the worst category overall.
You might as well reach for the table sugar for your coffee. One white packet only has 15 calories, and if the rest of your diet is pretty free of added sugars, it shouldn’t be a problem. The USDA recommends no more than 25g of added sugar a day; one packet of sugar is about 4g.
Just make sure you’re reading your labels carefully; calories still count at the end of the day, and aspartame, sucralose, or stevia aren’t an excuse to have a sugar-free free-for-all.