Stevia: This Sugar Substitute Is Sweet and Healthy

What is stevia? It’s a safe and proven natural sugar substitute that’s sweeter than sugar and good for you. If that’s not enough reason to try it, check out these oatmeal apple muffin and chocolate chip cookie recipes.

| November 4, 2009

Stevia health

As a powder or a liquid, stevia can be a healthy, yummy sugar substitute, in home-baked goods or those on the store shelves.


Imagine an herb that’s much sweeter than sugar, but almost calorie-free. Imagine that it does not cause the after-eating spike in blood sugar that aggravates diabetes. Imagine that it’s actually good for you, reducing blood sugar and blood pressure, and boosting immune function. Imagine that it’s safer than other artificial sweeteners, and that you can easily grow it yourself. Too good to be true? Hardly. The herb is stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), and after a long, strange trip through U.S. regulatory limbo, it is now becoming widely available, both on it’s own and in foods such as SweetLeaf Sweetener and the SoBe Lifewater beverage from PepsiCo.

An estimated 280 species of stevia grow throughout North and South America, but only one, Stevia rebaudiana, is sweet — and it is astonishingly sweet. Right off the plant, stevia leaves are 15 times sweeter than table sugar. But the commercial leaf extract is an astounding 250 times sweeter, thanks to a compound called stevioside. One teaspoon of stevioside is as sweet as 3 cups of sugar, but contains only 8 calories.

Stevia is native to Paraguay and Brazil, where, for centuries, the Guarani Indians called it kaa-he-e, meaning sweet herb, or honey leaf. Japanese food chemists introduced a powdered stevioside sweetener in 1971, but it attracted little interest in the United States until the late 1980s. Then, just as Americans began buying the herb, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received an anonymous complaint accusing it of causing genetic mutations linked to cancer. The charge proved to be false. A recent review of several studies shows that stevia does not pose a risk of genetic damage.

Who libeled stevia? The complainant’s name has never been released, but noted advocate of alternative medicine Andrew Weil, M.D., says, “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the FDA’s position was motivated, at least to some degree, by a desire to protect the manufacturer of aspartame (NutraSweet).” The three big FDA-approved artificial sweeteners are Sweet ‘N Low (saccharine), NutraSweet (aspartame) and Sunette (acesulfame K). In 1991, the FDA banned stevia as an “unsafe food additive.” Despite a chorus of protest, the ban held until 1994, when the Dietary Supplement, Health and Education Act forced the FDA to allow stevia to be sold as a supplement (you can find stevia products at health food stores). In 2008, the FDA reversed its original ruling, approving two stevia sweeteners as food additives: SweetLeaf (from Wisdom Natural Brands of Phoenix, Ariz.) and Truvia (from Cargill and Coca-Cola). Look for new stevia-sweetened soft drinks and other products in the not-too-distant future.

Makers of the other sweeteners fear stevia for good reason. It’s not only sweeter than the competition — it’s safer. Aspartame may cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. The FDA tried to ban saccharin in 1978 because it was linked to cancer in lab animals. Congress stopped the ban, but products containing saccharin were required to carry warning labels. Some studies show that Sunette causes cancer in lab animals. Meanwhile, in more than a dozen studies over the past decade, stevia has never been shown to cause any adverse effects. Look for stevia in the herb or sweetener section of natural food stores.

Finally, stevia is good for you. Many studies show that it provides health benefits:

tessa zafereo
1/16/2013 2:13:42 PM

Ive been using Truvia for a few years now only to find out its not what its supposed to be .Can someone tell me if Sweet Leaf is better?

11/13/2009 10:36:31 AM

What gets me is the promotion of just a single chemical from this plant being marketed as a "natural" sweentener. It gets labeled as natural, but it is not natural for a plant to have only one chemical. As for the taste of Stevia products. Yes it does have an aftertaste, but I have found that the severity of that taste varies hugely from product to product. So if you don't like one, then try a different brand.

11/9/2009 9:55:53 PM

Truvia is mostly Erythritol, a sugar alcohol. It is marketed as stevia, but it is far from a pure extract.

alex mckenzie
11/9/2009 12:05:25 PM

I've only got one problem with Stevia: the taste. OK, on its own, as a sweetener, it's fine as long as I'm eating or drinking whatever I've sweetened with it. But the aftertaste ruins anything I eat for at least an hour after I eat or drink anything with Stevia in it. I'd just chalk it up to my body being weird again (I have odd reactions to a lot of foods and drugs), but I've met a few dozen other people with the same response. It's just not the same. Instead, I try to use local honey (cheaper than it is from the supermarket, and it tastes better too!) or minimally processed sugar. Stevia's just not worth the bad taste to me.

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