I’m frequently asked if Stevia is a good alternative to sugar. With all the different kinds of stevia available and given everyone’s bio-individuality, it’s hard to give a black and white answer. I wrote this post to educate you about stevia so you can choose what’s right for you!
First, what is Stevia?
Stevia is a plant – an herb with green leaves. There are nearly 300 species of stevia that grow in South America, and you can even buy a stevia plant at your local garden store. Stevia is used as a sweetener (and depending on which form you choose, it could be 20-400 times sweeter than sugar). The main reason stevia has become so popular is the fact that it doesn’t raise blood insulin levels when consumed (no blood sugar roller coaster rides).
Of course I have to point out that sweeteners - whether caloric, natural or artificial -don’t necessarily promote weight loss. If you’ve followed me for a bit, you know I don’t put much emphasis into calorie counting, but rather into food quality and nutritional content.
Some background and a little food politics
Stevioside and Rebaudioside are two glycosides (sugar compounds) in stevia that make it taste sweet. Stevioside is responsible for the slightly bitter aftertaste. Rebaudioside or “Reb A” is 200 times sweeter than sugar and is the FDA approved food additive.
There appears to be a lot of back and forth on the safety of stevia and with the FDA’s willingness to approve it. I did some simple research and also looked to articles written by other well-respected doctors and health experts. Without making the post entirely links to stevia articles, I’ll summarize what I have discovered:
In the 1980s, animal studies surfaced showing that stevia could cause negative effects on fertility and reproduction, however some of these studies used extremely high volumes of the substance, and still other studies reported no observable connection. [1, 2] Later in 1991, due to pressure from the makers of artificial sweeteners (the pink and blue packets), the FDA refused to approve stevia.  Meanwhile, artificial sweeteners are known to be neurotoxic and can trigger a whole host of negative symptoms. Not surprisingly, 2008 when Coca-Cola and Pepsi got involved, the use of Rebaudioside A compounds were approved as “Generally Regarded As Safe / GRAS”. [4, 5] Some current studies even show that stevia has medicinal benefits and supports the reduction of cancer. 
So basically what this means is whole stevia is not approved as a sweetener by the FDA, but it’s processed extracted powder form of Rebaudioside A is approved – makes sense, right? I’m not so sure about that. [4, 5, 7] More on the patentable chemical processing of stevia powder in the next section…
Stevia to Avoid
The white powdered stevia goes through multiple processing steps and the addition of other ingredients before it is packaged and sold to you as a “healthy sugar alternative”. The US patent for Coca-Cola’s Truvia includes 42 steps (some of which employ toxic chemical solvents) as well as the addition of the GMO Corn derivative, Erythritol, and “natural flavors”.  Natural flavors can be pretty much be anything from essential oil, to the products of roasting, to crushed bugs.  Other brands (such as Pepsi’s Pure Via) include dextrose, which is another sweetener derived from GMO Corn, and some brands have other added sweeteners like agave and maltodextrin. So that begs the question: why are sugar and other additives being put into “natural stevia”? Sounds misleading to me, and certainly not like a healthy product.
Unfortunately, when people ask me if Stevia is Okay, they are usually referring to these highly marketed, easy to find, big brand names – the ones loaded with undesirable fillers in pretty little packets. Below are the labels of some common stevia brands that I found at my local Whole Foods Market:
Stevia to Consider
Green Leaf Stevia (as in the real, whole plant) is your best bet when it comes to stevia. Add it to your herb garden or window box - you can then dry it and add a few leaves to your tea or grind it to add to your food as a sweetener. This is not, however, what most people have in mind when they ask me if Stevia is Okay. The next step down would be the minimally processed liquid stevia extract... with minimal fillers (of course, you can also make your own with dried leaves and grain alcohol.)
Stevia not sounding so sweet to you now?
As I mentioned above, I base my health coaching business on eating whole foods that are right for your unique body. I don’t consider conventional stevia powder to be a real health-giving food that should be part of a regular diet. If you can’t live without the added sweetness, then I would suggest you dig deeper as to the reasons you crave sweets in the first place – is there a hidden physiological or chemical stress on your body? Blood sugar fluctuations? Macronutrient imbalances? Emotional instability or other areas of your life that aren’t fulfilling you?
My Choices for Sweeteners
Remember that we should generally limit the intake of sweets, regardless of whether they are caloric or non-caloric. In taking this into consideration, my personal choices to sweeten food are:
Honey: One of the oldest natural sweeteners, honey is sweeter than sugar. Depending on the plant source, honey can have a range of flavors, from dark and strongly flavored, to light and mildly flavored. Raw honey contains small amounts of enzymes, minerals and vitamins, and is know for it’s healing properties. 
Maple Syrup: Made from boiled-down maple tree sap, maple syrup contains many minerals, adds a pleasant flavor to foods, and is great for baking. Be sure to buy 100% pure maple syrup and not maple-flavored corn syrup. Grade B is stronger in flavor and said to have more minerals than Grade A. 
Molasses: Organic molasses is probably the most nutritious sweetener derived from sugar cane or sugar beet, and is made by a process of clarifying and blending the extracted juices. The longer the juice is boiled, the less sweet, more nutritious and darker the product is. Molasses imparts a very distinct flavor to food. Blackstrap molasses, the most nutritious variety, is a good source of iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. 
Fruit: Depending on what you’re making, bananas and/or dates can be a great substitute for sugar (think “ice cream”, baking, smoothies, or trading out candy for a real piece of fruit). Not only do you get to enjoy something sweet, but you also receive the added nutritional benefits from eating a whole food.
And yes, Green Leaf Stevia: In it’s whole form, I’d consider this an acceptable sweetener too!
In conclusion, I hope that you take this information and consider what is right for you. Personally, I try to eat a clean, nutrient dense diet made from whole foods. I do have some practical steps I take on busy days, such as a smoothie with protein powder that has stevia extract in it. However, I don’t dump a couple packets in my tea everyday. Find the balance that is right for you and always try to make the best choices with the options that are available!
Please share your thoughts about Stevia in the comments below. Do you use stevia? Is it a regular part of your diet? What is your favorite brand? Have you grown it and used the leaves?
I have suffered from numerous health challenges conventional medicine couldn't fix. This blog is a place for me to share my experiences and information with others who want to feel better again too. Please share your thoughts in the comments. I always look forward to supporting you to improve your health!