A natural sweetener with zero calories and zero aftertaste that doesn’t cause cancer in lab rats? Is that a dream too good to be true?
I’m hoping not.
Stevia is fast becoming my favorite formerly-unknown sweetener, if only for the mystery surrounding it, the foodie vs. government controversy, and the fact that I feel confident recommending it to diabetics, a rarity. But is stevia safe? If it is safe, what are stevia’s health benefits?
If you asked me about stevia a year ago, I would have been skeptical. I would have told you I just wasn’t sure about it, both from a safety standpoint and an aftertaste issue.
Now I’ve found a few brands that I like, no aftertaste, and I keep seeing more positive than negative press on the health benefits or dangers of stevia.
This post is part of a series on natural sweeteners.
What Is Stevia, Anyway?
If you’ve never looked into stevia, I’m guessing you think it’s a white powder in a little packet.
In truth, stevia is a green plant grown much like mint, an herb whose leaves are 30-50 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar).
It’s been cultivated and used both as a sweetener in tea and for its medicinal properties for centuries in Paraguay and other parts of South America.
Stevia is named after Spanish botanist Pedro Jaime Esteve, which means it’s pronounced “STEH-vee-uh” with a short “e” like “step,” not “STEE-vee-uh” like “steep.”
The dried green leaves can be used to sweeten beverages, but from what I understand, there is a bitter aftertaste and certain flavor to the leaves that makes them undesirable for use as a general sweetener. However, if you can find the green powder, you know you have a completely unprocessed form of stevia.
UPDATE: I’ve used the green powder now, and although my husband doesn’t like it in yogurt, I don’t mind it, and it’s really quite good in tea – just add it in while you steep your tea.
When processed, manufacturers seek to extract only the sweet part of the leaf, called rebaudioside A, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar. The process usually involves drying the leaves, using water for the first extraction and then narrowing the product down to only the sweetest part with methanol or ethanol.1
Warning sirens just went off for the naturally minded among you, right? Ethanol and methanol aren’t parts of a normal, healthy diet.
Is Stevia Safe? The Safe Stevia Brands
Generally, a liquid extract of stevia is less processed and doesn’t need the chemicals that the white powder form requires. I imagine it’s a bit like making vanilla extract or mint extract or something.
In my experience, having tasted the liquid extract from NuNaturals and multiple powders, the liquid extract is much more desirable as far as flavor goes. It sweetens with little to no taste added, whereas most powders have a bitter, off aftertaste that reminds me of artificial sweeteners, which I despise. Ever gotten the wrong soda at a restaurant? I can tell immediately if there’s aspartame in something.
I had previously written off the powders as too highly processed – how do you get a white powder from a green leaf, anyway? – and yucky tasting anyway. I’ve tried stevia powders from Sugar in the Raw, Truvia, NuNaturals, and SweetLeaf. Only the SweetLeaf brand has no aftertaste (a very little one, actually, but you have to be paying close attention to notice it).
This makes sense because Sweetleaf is processed completely through cool water extraction, no chemicals allowed. The white powder is white, and not green, simply because the reb-A is not related to the chlorophyll in the plant, which is responsible for the green color. Most other brands also include fillers in their powders, including dextrose (corn sugar) or erythritol.
My husband actually prefers the NuNaturals brand, and he hates the taste of artificial sweeteners as well. Others tasted it for me on some fresh Michigan strawberries earlier this summer and had mixed reviews. My father and godfather both thought the powder was just fine.
My mother and godmother, with more discerning palates I believe, both thought the NuNaturals powder was terrible. My godmother does use artificial sweeteners and still disliked the aftertaste; she says she’s tried TruVia and it made her physically ill.
The bottom line? Stick with liquid stevia when possible and check the background of the company’s processing with powders.
Is Stevia Healthy? Benefits of Stevia
Unlike most other sweeteners, stevia can actually have medicinal properties as well, including:
- possible positive effect on triglycerides, cholesterol and obesity2
- anti-inflammatory effect
- may help diarrhea
- negligible effect on blood glucose (i.e. safe for diabetics)
- used in South America to actually treat diabetes, but few studies to support this claim3
- may lower blood pressure4 or not5
- may treat heartburn6
- may improve skin rashes like eczema and eliminate dandruff7
Stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener, which is a nice bonus. It also does not increase your cravings for sweet things like consuming white sugar can.
Possible Dangers of Stevia and Disadvantages of Stevia
There are a couple of issues with stevia that may make you pause before making it your primary favorite sweetener.
On the baking side, because stevia has no bulk, it is difficult to replace sugar in your favorite recipes. There are some “baking blends” that add things like erythritol or other fillers to stevia so that you can sub 1:1 with sugar.
I tried NuNaturals brand of stevia for baking, subbing it for half of the sugar in my healthy pumpkin muffins. Disaster. The batch had a really odd aftertaste that most would probably guess was an artificial sweetener. I would never do it again, honestly. Not worth ruining the batch, even though the muffins were still edible – they just weren’t nearly as fun to eat.
On the health side, there are (as usual) conflicting reports on the overall safety of stevia.
In Paraguay, it is sometimes used as contraception, and there are one or two studies that confirm its contraceptive effects. However, I don’t know if the extract retains that property or just the whole leaf. I tend to avoid allowing my daughter to consume it because of that – who knows what it might do to her developing reproductive system?
Many sources say there is no harm in stevia, but large doses in animals have been linked to “interference of carbohydrate absorption, metabolism disruption, reduced sperm production, and conversion to mutagenic compounds.” Um. Blah. We don’t know if any of that happens in humans, of course, and is a “large dose” beyond anything one could consume, or is it similar to what I’d experience if I switched all my sweeteners to stevia?8
There has been some concern about minor GI effects, headaches and dizziness with Stevia. In addition, some studies have commented about purity and toxicity concerns. Mixing Stevia with sugar alcohols may have a laxative effect. Pregnant women, diabetics and those with high blood pressure should avoid using Stevia due to possible side effects.9
Since stevia has been used regularly as a sweetener in Japan for 40 years and commandeers 40% of the sweetener consumption there, I think we can watch their experience to determine possible health risks. So far, nothing has come of it negatively.
The last downside is certainly the cost – you’re definitely going to pay more to make lemonade with stevia than with white sugar, and perhaps even more compared to sucanat.
I’m definitely a fan of stevia, but with the caveat that it’s properly processed.
I had the pleasure to interview Jim May, founder of Wisdom Naturals Brands and SweetLeaf stevia.
Jim May: Background
Jim May first tasted stevia in 1982 when a Peace Corps volunteer brought some to him from South America. He made it his mission to bring stevia to the United States and began what would be a 25+ year battle to obtain GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from the FDA so that he could market stevia as a sweetener to be added to foods.
Coming from the perspective of a former end-stage renal disease executive, the health benefits of stevia have always been important to Jim May. He prides himself on keeping all chemicals away from his product and processes the stevia differently than others on the market. May also sources his stevia only from South
America, where he hopes the economy can be stimulated with a legal crop in part to combat the lucrative drug trade there.
Q&A with Jim May
Chatting with Jim May reminded me a little of talking with my own father: a man in the upper decades of life, uber-passionate about his work, focused on big goals, lover of storytelling, and right about everything, because how could there be any other way? I immediately felt comfortable with the conversation and became more and more interested in and fascinated by what he had to share.
photo source: Wisdom Naturals Press Kit
Here’s the basic text of the interview, adjusted slightly to make sure my notes make sense, but mostly Jim May’s words:
Q: How does one process a green leaf into a white powder?
A: The stevia herb is green because of chlorophyll. To make the white powder, we soak leaves in cool water, and over a period of soaking time, all the nutrients are extracted. Then we use a series of filters of various molecular pores (sizes) which can extract various compounds and separate them. We end up the four most desirable glycosides, the sweet compounds in the leaves.
Scientists used to think there were eleven glycosides, but now know there are over 25. When they are separated, you have white powder because the chlorophyll is removed. No bleaches or chemicals ever touch the product.
Q: How do you find natural stevia vs. unnatural?
A: The simple answer is to use Sweetleaf. Long answer: the old way to extract uses chemicals, including ethanol and methanol. [Jim tells the story of a guy who talked to him at a trade show saying, “we use food-grade ethanol, and you should too.” May says ethanol is car fuel. That’s why there’s no corn to feed all the people.] Sweetleaf technology uses 100% cool water filtration; no chemicals or alcohols whatsoever ever touch our product.
Q: What did you do between 1982 and 2008, when stevia finally received GRAS status from the FDA, to keep SweetLeaf running? How did you get stevia into the U.S.?
A: [Between 1982 and 1995, we sold Yerba Matte, a traditional South American tea that includes stevia, then marketed it for the skin, and when stevia was allowed as a supplement, we sold it as that.
The process of figuring out how to market it as a sweetener people would recognize (in packets) was difficult.]
Stevia extract is 300x sweeter than sugar. The only source at the time (in 1995) was China. People couldn’t use anything in the kitchen that was 300x sweeter than sugar. How to make it work?
We had to do what aspartame is doing – blend it with a carrier. What to use? There were no good ideas out there, so I wouldn’t do it because I wanted a product absolutely healthy and natural, something diabetics could use without any harm whatsoever [remember that May’s background is in renal disease].
I began searching for a proper carrier, and it took a year to find it – inulin. Inulin exists in all fruits and vegetables. It’s a soluble fiber, but we don’t digest it. Inulin goes directly to the intestines, where it’s a primary food supply for good bacteria. It is white, mildly sweet, has no calories, no impact on the glycemic index.
The SweetLeaf blend for packets and shaker bottles is inulin. The quality of inulin and stevia has increased over the years.
[When the GRAS status was recognized in 2008, we were ready to go to market.]
Q: What kind of hoops did you have to jump through to get the GRAS status for stevia, and why was it such a long task?
A: I went to the FDA office in early 1983 with tea bags I wanted to market, and also a dark liquid concentrate (which doesn’t taste quite as good as the clear liquid). They told me, “Oh, Mr. May, we know all about stevia and it’s perfectly safe; you’ll have no problem.”
Then the problems started. In 1965 a drug company was developing aspartame as a prescription-only drug for peptic ulcers. Because of negative test results on safety, they could not get it approved. Then one day a lab worker accidentally licked his hand or something and tasted the substance.
Suddenly the drug is going to be marketed as sweetener, but the FDA wouldn’t allow it at that time. The drug company had done numerous studies, most of which said it was safe, etc. Most independent labs showed it was terrible for the human body.
The Senate held hearings and doctors and scientists continued testifying that it was no good.
At this time, [political drama began]. Ronald Reagan did not select Donald Rumsfield as his running mate, choosing Gerald R. Ford instead. It was sort of expected in Washington that Rumsfield was owed something.
The drug company then hired Rumsfield to be president of the company; his assignment was to get aspartame approved as a sweetener. He accomplished that in 1981 in this way:
Rumsfield removed the commissioner of FDA and hired Arthur Hayes, whose job was to overrule objections to aspartame as a sweetener; within a few weeks he resigned and went to work for the same drug company.
By 1982 Japan had been researching and marketing stevia for several years, and stevia had 40% of the market share for sweeteners in Japan. Rumsfield knew this and had just gotten aspartame approved…so stevia was a big competitor.
Suddenly after a magazine article featured my work with stevia, Rumsfield sent a big team to stop me from bringing stevia to America. The agent who called to tell me the news was so upset that he told me what they weren’t supposed to tell me!
The bottom line: Lawyers from aspartame company worked to stop me from selling stevia as a food, but they didn’t care if it was sold for topical benefits. Stevia concentrate is wonderfully healing for skin – so I changed the label to a skincare product and also sold herbal teas with healing properties including stevia in them.
I had a bad feeling about using the word stevia, so I trademarked “honey leaf” – what they call it loosely translated in Paraguay.
As I did speaking engagements about stevia’s topical benefits, people would always ask, “Can I take it internally?” and my answer was, “In America, no. …But if you lived in other countries, you could take it internally.”
By 1993 I was fed up with the whole thing, so I met with John McCain [May’s senator from Arizona] and several congressmen to show them the Japanese research. I convinced them the whole thing had nothing to do with safety but was a restraint of trade.
They agreed and wrote letters to the FDA on my behalf. They got nasty letters back telling them that congressmen do not tell the FDA what to do.
The next year, the FDA passed an act that allowed stevia to be sold “as a dietary supplement” only. So – congress did tell the FDA what to do.
In 1997 Cargill announced they were going to introduce stevia as first GRAS (“Generally Recognized as Safe”) stevia in the US. Another company followed suit that THEY would be the first. Another company was going to get it approved as a drug so it couldn’t be a sweetener [because a drug can’t be a food].
I couldn’t let any of that happen! I took a course of action called “self-affirmed GRAS” by hiring qualified scientists to research stevia who were all former FDA GRAS scientists.
The started with the 1700 pages of science on stevia collected, including over 1500 published scientific studies on the safety of stevia – all positives. Any negative study has been disproven.
About this time scientists from South America called me and claimed they were experts in water extraction, that they could extract flavonoids, etc. from plants, and they wanted to know if I would work with them to develop a new technology for stevia extract.
By 2008 when the GRAS status was almost ready, we had developed the water extraction stevia in our private factory. Scientists said “absolutely this is GRAS.” I felt like I “won” the race as the first to achieve GRAS status for stevia.
[Sidenote: according to Mr. May, Truvia brand is 99.1% erythritol and the “rest” is stevia. The erythritol is from GMO corn, extracted from corn with various alcohols. Americans rejected erythritol, but they are accepting stevia. Hence, big brands getting on board.]
Q: Research shows that eating both sugar and artificial sweeteners trains the palate to want more sweet food, and can be addictive. Any idea if stevia has a similar effect on our sugar cravings, or do different rules apply to herbs?
A: Stevia actually reduces the desire for sweets and fatty foods. Nobody knows why yet, but if used daily as part of the diet, you have no desire for sweets and fatty foods. This is not in a study, but it’s what people report.
Q: What sort of Sweet Leaf do you use personally on a daily basis: powder or liquid?
A: I have been using stevia every day for 29 years, and now I cannot tolerate more than a few bites of candy. I use every type – whole leaf every morning in a beverage called yerba matte – the hottest thing going in the energy market, but bitter, so I include stevia. This has also stopped all the allergies I have had for 25 years.
Q: How can we (you) get stevia into more products that people can purchase at their local grocery stores? What roadblocks do you encounter when you approach other food companies to try to convince them that stevia is the ingredient to use?
A: The only roadblock is that big companies take a long long time (they have to) to do lots of research to make sure they’re not altering the flavor, etc. The head of Wrigley’s said if they decided they’d use stevia, it would take two years to get the new product on the shelf because of the product testing time.
As a company, we’re struggling to produce the new water extraction technology fast enough to supply the demand of those who want it. [Wisdom Naturals/SweetLeaf is adding new factories and expanding, but still makes sure they get all their stevia from South America.]
Q: How does the home baker make up for the discrepancy in mass between stevia and sugar?
A: The tabletop packets are ten times sweeter than sugar. We’re working on new product called Sugarleaf. It’s stevia bound to sugar molecules, one granule of both, so instead of 1 c. sugar in a recipe, you’d use 1/3 cup. That way you end up with 2/3 fewer calories.
Q: Do you have any plans to simply offer the dried herb, green, in its most natural form?
A: We do sell leaves in teabag form, with which one can make a concentrate by cooking leaves in water. This maintains over 100 nutrients found in stevia that promote extraordinary healing both internally and topically.
This next part is my words because FDA regulations prohibit companies from claiming any health benefits to foods whatsoever. Since the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, only drugs can cause us to have good health, you see. Right? Of course. Food has no impact on our well-being. Right. *raspberries*
They do sell stevia tea, and one teabag sweetens 2-6 cups of liquid. The tea helps stomach upsets, because harmful bacteria that cause upset stomachs, food poisoning, tooth decay, and gum disease love the taste of sweet glycosides. But stevia has a chain that harmful bacteria cannot digest.
Thanks, Mr. May! Great interview, and it’s so nice to “meet” a brand with a real person behind it, especially someone for whom global economics, environmental safety, and true health of people is paramount.
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