This article looks at what stevia is, how it is extracted, its health benefits, how it is used, and, most importantly, whether it is safe.
Native to Paraguay, stevia has traditionally been used to sweeten beverages and make tea. The term "stevia" refers to the entire plant and its components, only some of which are sweet.
Although it was not until the 19th century that scientists began seriously investigating stevia, the indigenous people of Paraguay were using the plant as early as the 16th century to sweeten drinks and medicines.
While the word "stevia" refers to the entire plant, for the purposes of this article, the term "stevia" will be used interchangeably to refer to "steviol glycosides" - the sweet components isolated and purified from stevia's leaves.
Fast facts on stevia
Here are some key points about stevia. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Stevia is a plant grown in Brazil and Paraguay
- Stevia is much sweeter than sugar - the extract can taste 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar
- Stevia is calorie-free, but that does not necessarily mean you will lose weight if you swap sugar for stevia
- Stevia and other artificial sweeteners that have been approved for use in the United States do not appear to pose any health risks when used in moderation
What is stevia?
Stevia is an intensely sweet, natural sweetener that is harvested from the stevia rebaudiana plant.
Stevia is cultivated in many countries, but China is the leading exporter of stevia products currently. Stevia provides an important role in biodiversity due to how little land is required to grow it, allowing farmers to diversify their crops.
Unlike commodity crops, stevia is grown on smaller plots of land and provides supplemental income to more commonplace crops.
As stevia is intensely sweet, it typically requires only one-fifth of the land and much less water to provide the same amount of sweetness as other mainstream sweeteners.
There are 150 species of stevia, all native to South and North America.
The sweetness of the stevia leaves is caused by eight glycosides contained within them. These glycosides are stevioside, rebaudioside A, C, D, E, and F, steviolbioside, and dulcoside A. Stevioside is the most abundant of these components; the leaves of some cultures contain up to 18 percent stevioside.
Some of the common and trade names for stevia sweeteners are Enliten, PureVia, Rebaudioside A/Reb A, Rebaudioside B, Rebaudioside C, Rebaudioside D, Rebiana, Stevia, Steviacane, Steviol Glycosides, Stevioside, Stevia Extract In The Raw, and SweetLeaf.
Health benefits of stevia
Steviol glycosides have zero calories. Stevia-based tabletop sweeteners can have zero or minimal calories per serving, depending upon the other food ingredients with which they are combined. These factors could have a positive effect on those looking to control weight or manage diabetes.
Below, we take a look at the possible health benefits of stevia.
Research indicates that stevia sweeteners do not contribute calories or carbohydrates to the diet and do not affect blood glucose or insulin response.
Research has shown that stevia sweeteners do not contribute calories or carbohydrates to the diet and do not affect blood glucose or insulin response, which allows people with diabetes to consume a wider variety of foods and comply with a healthful meal plan.
Additionally, a position paper on nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reviewed five randomized controlled trials examining the effects of stevia compared with placebos on metabolic outcomes.
The studies reported minimal to no effects on blood glucose, insulin levels, hypertension, and body weight. In one study showing minimal effects, subjects with type 2 diabetes reported reduced postprandial blood glucose and glucagon response after a test meal of stevia versus placebo.
2) Weight control
The causes of overweight and obesity are multifactorial and include factors such as physical inactivity, prolonged sitting, and increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and added sugars.
The intake of added sugars has been shown to contribute an average of 16 percent of the total calories in the American diet and has been linked to weight gain and adverse effects on glycemic control.
Plant-based, zero calorie stevia can be part of a well-balanced diet to help reduce energy intake without sacrificing taste.
Steviol glycosides are poorly absorbed in the body and pass through the upper gastrointestinal tract fully intact. Once steviol glycosides reach the colon, gut bacteria convert steviol glycosides into steviol. Steviol is then metabolized by the liver before being excreted in the urine.
Research has shown that there is no accumulation of stevia (or any byproduct of stevia) in the body during metabolism. It is because of this poor absorption in the digestive tract that stevia has zero calories and does not raise blood glucose or insulin levels when digested.
4) Pancreatic cancer
Stevia plant has many sterols and antioxidant compounds including kaempferol, quercetin, chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, isoquercitrin, and isosteviol. Studies have found that kaempferol can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer by 23 percent.
5) Blood pressure
Certain glycosides in stevia extract have been found to dilate blood vessels, increase sodium excretion, and urine output. In higher doses, stevia could potentially help lower blood pressure.
The plant may have cardiotonic actions, which normalize blood pressure and regulate heartbeat.
6) Special populations
Regulatory health agencies around the world have approved high purity stevia leaf extract for safe use. This includes special populations such as pregnant and nursing women, children, and people with allergies or diabetes.
Foods and beverages containing stevia can play an important role in decreasing calories from unwanted sweeteners in children's diets. There are now thousands of products containing naturally-sourced stevia on the market, ranging from salad dressing to snack bars, which allow children to consume foods and beverages that taste sweet without added calories.
Multiple global regulatory organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) have determined that high purity stevia extract is safe for consumption by the general population, including children, when consumed within the recommended levels.
In 2010, the European Food Safety Committee (EFSA) reviewed the literature to determine if there was any cause for concern regarding the potential for allergic reactions to the stevia plant. The reviewers concluded that "steviol glycosides are not reactive and are not metabolized to reactive compounds, therefore, it is unlikely that the steviol glycosides under evaluation should cause by themselves allergic reactions when consumed in foods."
How is stevia used?
Stevia-sweetened chocolate contains all the sweetness you crave but with far fewer calories.
Worldwide, more than 5,000 food and beverage products currently use stevia as an ingredient. Stevia sweeteners are used as an ingredient in products throughout Asia and South America such as:
- Ice cream
- Pickled foods
- Soft drinks
- Chewing gum
- Prepared vegetables
In the U.S., stevia sweeteners are primarily found in tabletop products and reduced calorie beverages as sugar substitutes. Extracts from the stevia leaf have been available as dietary supplements in the U.S. since the mid-1990s, and many contain a mixture of both sweet and non-sweet components of the stevia leaf.
The sweet components in stevia sweeteners are naturally occurring, which may further benefit consumers who prefer foods and beverages they perceive as natural.
Is stevia safe?
Independent scientific experts in both the U.S. and globally have concluded that stevia sweeteners are safe for people of all ages and populations.
Stevioside, the main glycoside of stevia, was found to be nontoxic in acute toxicity studies in a variety of laboratory animals.
No major contraindications, warnings, or adverse reactions have been documented.
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.
Studies clearly support the safety of stevia sweeteners. Further, clinical studies showed that steviol glycosides, meeting purity criteria established by the JECFA, have no effect on either blood pressure or blood glucose response, indicating stevia sweeteners are safe for use by individuals with diabetes.
Based on the wealth of published research, independent scientific experts in both the US and globally have concluded that stevia sweeteners are safe for people of all ages and populations and an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 4 milligrams per kilogram body weight has been established.
The majority of scientific research on stevia uses high purity stevia extracts. Confusion had resulted in the past when research conclusions about stevia were drawn based on studies testing crude stevia extracts.
In some countries, crude stevia extracts or whole stevia plant leaves are often sold as dietary supplements, but it is important to note that only high purity stevia leaf extract has been evaluated and approved for use as an ingredient in food and beverages by multiple regulatory agencies throughout the world.
Around the world, stevia is listed differently due to regulations from country to country. This is because different countries have their own established food policies on stevia and labeling policies vary.