Is Stevia Bad For You?
As more and more consumers become aware of the many negative health effects of over-consuming sugar in their diet, the search continues for a good replacement to sweeten foods. While the FDA has insisted that artificial sweeteners like aspartame (brand name Equal) and sucralose (brand name Splenda) are safe, they can cause side effects in many people. Headaches and muscle pain are two of the more common reported side effects, for example.1
The main reason we turn to these sweeteners is to enjoy sweetened foods without the calories. Yet studies have shown that artificial sweeteners not only don’t help us lose weight, they may make us gain weight.2 In addition, studies have linked the heavy use of artificial sweeteners with a slightly increased risk of bladder cancer.3
For years, natural practitioners, myself included, have recommended the herb stevia as a natural sweetener alternative. The stevia plant grows in South America and has a long history of use with native South Americans for a variety of health benefits. More recently, stevia has been used as a natural sweetener in other countries like Japan. Yet it was never approved as a sweetener in Europe or the US — until recently that is.
In December of 2008, stevia was finally approved by the FDA for use as a general purpose sweetener in the US. Marketed under the brand names TruVia and PureVia, the sweeteners are not in the whole plant form, but are made from an extract from the stevia plant called rebaudioside A, or rebiana for short.
Already, soft drink companies like Coca Cola and PepsiCo are launching stevia sweetened versions of their soft drinks in an effort to boost their sagging sales and unhealthy reputation. “Natural great tasting zero calorie sweetener that comes from a leaf, not a lab,” is the comforting description being used for these sweeteners. But surprisingly, even this natural sweetener is facing some controversy.
Stevia’s controversial past includes studies linking it to liver mutations, fertility problems, and disruptions in energy metabolism.4 A December 2008 study in chicks fed a diet of either dried ground whole stevia leaves or pure stevioside (an extract of stevia comparable to rebiana), reported that both the dried stevia as well as the extract decreased blood levels of T3 thyroid hormone.5This study is a concern because T3 is your active thyroid hormone, and low thyroid activity is linked with weight gain and a whole host of health problems.
Like many other substances, the negative effects of stevia are seen in animals only at very high levels of intake, and we don’t know if these effects will carry through to humans. So light to moderate usage is probably safe, and unlike the artificial sweeteners, I have yet to see any of my patients experience headaches or muscle pain from stevia.
Remember stevia is a sweet plant, so my guess is it will turn out to be much better than the artificial sweeteners. But until further research on the stevia extracts can clarify their effects, I recommend using stevia only in moderation like other sweeteners.
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1 Van den Eeden SK, et al. Neurology. 44 (10): 1787-93.
2 American Psychological Association (2008, February 11). Artificial Sweeteners Linked To Weight Gain. Science Daily. Retrieved February 2, 2009, fromhttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080210183902.htm.
4 Schardt, David. Stevia a Bittersweet Tale. http://www.cspinet.org/nah/4_00/stevia.html.
5 Atteh JO, et al. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2008 Dec; 92(6):640-9.