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I have been avoiding artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) for a while now due to all of the toxic chemicals and well-documented side effects (e.g., turning to formaldehyde in the stomach … aspartame, anyone? ), and instead I’ve been using various brands of stevia to sweeten my tea and homemade lemonade. I chose stevia because I had always heard that it’s the natural, healthier sweetener choice…but now there seems to be concern about stevia, or at least certain brands of it, not being all it’s cracked up to be either. I’ve tried to figure out the good and the bad, and I’m excited to share what I have learned here and to hear what you think!
What is Stevia?
Stevia is an herbal plant that is typically grown in South America. And while its extract is 200 times sweeter than sugar, it does not raise blood insulin levels. That’s what makes it so popular.
What makes stevia leaves sweet are two molecules – stevioside and rebaudioside. Stevioside is sweet but also has a bitter aftertaste that many complain about when using stevia, while rebaudioside is better tasting, sweet and less bitter.
Most “raw” and less processed stevia products contain both sweeteners (stevioside and rebaudioside), whereas most highly processed forms of stevia, like Coca-Cola’s Truvia and others, only contain the rebaudioside (the sweetest part of the stevia leaf).
As I’ve learned, the “whole” stevia leaf that contains stevioside and rebaudioside has been found in research to have some health benefits, but using the types of stevia that have been processed to remove many of its key compounds and are full of other chemicals and ingredients is probably not the best option.
What Kind of Stevia to Choose and Which to Avoid
Here is what you need to know about the various types and brands of stevia.
1. Green Leaf Stevia – This is the least processed of all types of stevia. The leaves have basically been dried and ground into powder form. This is the type of stevia that has been used in Japan and South America for centuries as a natural sweetener and health remedy. This stevia is slightly bitter and isn’t quite as sweet as most stevia products on the market —this type of stevia is about 30-40 times sweeter than sugar.
This is the type of stevia that is probably the best option to use if you’re going to sweeten with stevia.
2. Stevia Extracts – Some brands of stevia on the market extract and just use the sweeter and less bitter part of the stevia leaf (rebaudioside) which doesn’t have the health benefits that have been found in stevioside. This type of stevia may be a better option than other artificial sweeteners and more processed forms, but there aren’t many studies available yet showing its effects… So probably best to avoid these if possible.
3. Highly Processed Stevia (Truvia, PureVia and others) – This is the type of stevia that it sounds like we want to stay away from… and in reality, isn’t stevia at all. The problem with these stevia products are the extreme processing and added ingredients. They also don’t contain the stevioside part of the stevia. These rebaudioside stevia products with added sweetening and processing are about 400 times sweeter than sugar.
Not really much stevia? This article discusses how the major compound used in Truvia (which claims to be a stevia-based sweetener), is actually erythritol, which is derived from yeast that “may be fed with [GMO corn sugar].”
And according to the United States patent for the Coca-Cola Company, there is a 42 step process to make Truvia sweetener! First, the rebaudioside is extracted from the stevia leaf using chemical solvents such as acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile and isoproponal (among others) – many of these are known carcinogens. Then they add in the genetically modified corn derivative for the erythritol. But the advertising is certainly deceptive… not really “coming from nature”…
And here’s another article discussing how Truvia was recently found to be a powerful insecticide…because of the GMO-corn derived erythritol. The article concludes that it is debatable what to make of this. Many scientists might argue that perhaps erythritol is perfectly safe for humans and only toxic to insects because of their different physiology. That would be the best-case scenario. But perhaps best just to wait until we have more answers and avoid Truvia and other erythritol-containing products like the one below until then…
Other additives and brands to be weary of…
“Natural flavors” (also in Truvia and the Nature’s Place brands above) is another ingredient added to powdered and liquid stevia products you might want to avoid. “Natural flavors” can include any number of ingredients because the FDA’s definition is pretty broad.
Dextrose is another ingredient to avoid – it’s also derived from genetically engineered corn and has a long complicated manufacturing process, just like erythritol.
“Stevia in the Raw” is described as “100% Natural”, but when you look at the ingredients the first thing on the label is dextrose (and it also contains only the stevia extract). And Pepsi Co’s “Pure Via,” also has dextrose as the first ingredient listed on the label as well.
Even certified organic stevia can have additional ingredients added. For example, the one shown below has organic agave inulin listed as the first ingredient (before the stevia extract itself). Agave inulin is a highly processed fiber derivative from the blue agave plant. Also on the ingredient list is silica (that’s the stuff in those little packets found in boxed goods) and it’s added to improve the flow of powdered substances…. While it is non-toxic and probably innocuous in small quantities, it’s definitely not ideal (it’s the same ingredient added to help strengthen concrete and creates glass bottles and windowpanes.)
So it seems like there is definitely a big difference between consuming real stevia and the chemically processed versions…
Regarding the good stuff (the whole leaf that contains both stevioside and rebaudioside), there are LOTS of studies (over 300!) evaluating stevia’s ability to be used as a health remedy. Studies found that this sweet herb may support blood sugar, weight loss and possibly even have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties (Chris Kresser goes into detail on some of the studies here).
On the negative side of things, one study did suggest that consuming stevia in very large amounts could effect hormones because its molecules have a similar structure to plant hormones, but follow-up studies called this into question. As Chris Kresser notes in his article, we’re probably ok if we aren’t consuming 24 packets a day.
As mentioned, the “whole” stevia leaf that contains both stevioside and rebaudioside has been found in research to have health benefits, but it looks like the jury is still out on the question of whether it’s effective or even safe once you remove all the other compounds inherent in the original plant…So far, no one knows. In the recent Toxicology of Rebaudioside A: A Review, researchers point out that stevioside compounds and rebaudioside A are metabolized at different rates, making it pretty difficult to assess the risk of rebaudioside A from toxicity assessments of stevioside (which has been used as food and medicine in Japan and South America for decades or longer).
Additionally, in a human metabolism study, stevioside and rebaudioside A had different results – the body reacted differently to the two compounds; each compound was found to be metabolized differently and remained in the body for different lengths of time.
So, if you are going to sweeten your foods and beverages with stevia, I think it’s best to consider using whole leaf forms of stevia until the safety of each individual stevia compound has been thoroughly assessed as safe.
So if you still want your daily dose of stevia…
What’s a Health-Conscious Stevia Consumer to Do?
When buying stevia:
- Whole green leaf stevia is best: You can even buy a stevia plant for your garden if you’re up for it (you can purchase seeds here), or purchase the pure dried leaves online – you can grind up them up using a spice grinder (or use a mortar and pestle) for your own powdered stevia. Then you can add fresh or dried leaves directly to tea or drinks for natural sweetness (note the straight stevia leaves are only 30-40 times sweeter than sugar vs. 200 times using an extract or 400 times sweeter with the more processed brands).
- If you don’t want to tend to a stevia plant or grind up leaves, the next best option is green stevia powder or store bought stevia without additives or extreme chemical processing.
- If you want to try green stevia powder, I like Organic Traditions – no sneaky additives – just the organic stevia leaf.
- If you are looking for a good brand of stevia that tastes good, doesn’t have the chemical fillers and that you can find in most any health food store, SweetLeaf Stevia is the best one I’ve found.
- If you want a liquid form, look for stevia extract that is 100% pure without added ingredients. While this SweetLeaf Liquid Extract is said to be extracted without any bleach or chemical whiteners, my guess is that the SweetLeaf Whole Leaf Stevia Concentrate is the closest to the real deal.
When choosing products already sweetened with stevia, look for “whole leaf stevia” on the ingredient label instead of rebaudioside a or stevia extract, and try to avoid those that contain Truvia or added ingredients such as dextrose, agave inulin, silica and erythritol.
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I'm Stephanie and I'm on a mission to spread awareness about health-harming toxins in our daily lives and easy ways to reduce them. I believe that healthy living doesn't have to be hard and that we can all take simple steps to create healthier lives for ourselves, our families and future generations. If you're seeking simple solutions for toxin-free and natural living in the modern world, then you’re in the right place!
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