Is Stevia Safe?

Sugar is one of the most dangerous ingredients on the market. It’s addictive, added to almost every processed food, and will make you overweight, depressed and sick if you eat too much. In fact, Americans eat close to 130 pounds of the stuff per person per year (4 times more than the recommended daily allowance), likely because it is so addictive. That’s why it’s exciting to know there are alternative sweeteners made in nature, like “stevia,” that don’t wreak havoc on your health – or do they? Is Stevia safe? That’s what I went on a quest to find out. Here’s what happened…

Stevia

What Is Stevia?

Food Babe - Stevia Plant

For those of you that are hearing about stevia for the first time, it is a 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. However in 1991 the FDA refused to approve this substance for use due to pressure from makers of artificial sweeteners like Sweet n’ Low and Equal (a one billion dollar industry). But in 2008, the FDA approved the use of rebaudioside compounds that were derived from the stevia plant by Coca-Cola (Cargill) and PepsiCo – hmmm doesn’t that sound suspicious? Not until a major food company got involved did stevia become legal, and only after it had been highly processed using a patentable chemical-laden process…so processed that Truvia (Coca-Cola’s branded product) goes through about 40 steps to process the extract from the leaf, relying on chemicals like acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens (substances that cause cancer), and none of those ingredients sound like real food, do they?

The whole leaf stevia that you can grow in your backyard (and has been used for centuries in countries like Brazil and Paraguay) remains a non-approved food additive by the FDA. However, rebaudioside A (the stevia extract) that was approved by the FDA has not been used for centuries and long term human health impacts have not been studied and are still unknown. The sweetener/sugar industry wields powerful influence over what is ultimately approved at the FDA, and this is just another example where they are influencing decisions that don’t make sense. How can a chemically derived extract be deemed safe in processed food and a plant from mother nature not?

What Kind Of  Stevia To Avoid

Truvia
The 40-step patented process used to make Truvia should make you want to steer clear of this stevia product alone, but there are two other concerning ingredients added (not only to Truvia but other stevia products as well). First, erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar that is sometimes found in fruit, but food manufacturers don’t actually use the natural stuff. Instead they start with genetically engineered corn and then go through a complex fermentation process to come up with chemically pure erythritol. Check out the manufacturing process below:
E Manu process

Credit: Cargill

All Natural Stevia

“Natural flavors” is another ingredient added to powdered and liquid stevia products, likely due to the fact that once the stevia leaf is processed it can develop a metallic taste. Manufactured natural flavor is contributing to what David Kessler (former head of the FDA) calls a “food carnival” in your mouth. This makes it difficult to stop eating or drinking because the flavors they have synthesized will trick your mind into wanting more and more. When companies use manufactured flavor, they are literally “hijacking” your taste buds one-by-one; that’s why I recommend putting products that contain “natural flavors” back on the shelf.

Food Babe - Stevia In the Raw

PureVia

“Stevia in the Raw” sounds pure and natural, but when you look at the ingredients the first thing on the label is “dextrose” – so it’s certainly not just stevia in the raw. And Pepsi Co’s “Pure Via,” also pictured above, isn’t exactly pure either with this ingredient being first on the label, too. Dextrose is a sweetener that’s also derived from genetically engineered corn and has a long complicated manufacturing process, just like erythritol.

Organic Stevia

silica gel do not eat

Even certified organic stevia can have sneaky ingredients added, like this one above which has more organic agave inulin than the stevia extract itself. Agave inulin is a highly processed fiber derivative from the blue agave plant. Also on the ingredient list is an item you are probably familiar with from those little packets sometimes found in boxed goods – silica (pictured). It is added to improve the flow of powdery substances and is the same ingredient that helps strengthen concrete and creates glass bottles and windowpanes. It may cause irritation of the digestive tract (if eaten) and irritation of the respiratory tract (if accidentally inhaled). While it is non-toxic and probably won’t kill you in small quantities, it’s definitely not a real food ingredient I would cook with or that I want to be putting in my body.

How To Choose The Right Kind Of Stevia

Luckily there are ways to enjoy this sweet leaf closer to it’s natural state… because let’s be honest, the no-calorie artificial sweeteners out there are really dreadful, and no one should consume them (check this post for the low down on those). So here’s what you can do:

  1. Buy a stevia plant for your garden (luckily it’s totally legal!) 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.
  2. When choosing products already sweetened with stevia, look for “whole leaf stevia” on the ingredient label. For example one of my favorite protein powders is made with “whole stevia leaf” instead of rebaudioside a or stevia extract.
  3. 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 the extract).
  4. Make your own liquid stevia extract (see graphic below for recipe).
    Stevia Extract
  5. If you are not up for getting a stevia plant of your own or making your own extract, remember to look for a stevia extract that is 100% pure without added ingredients (Sweet Leaf & Trader Joe’s have versions).

And when all else fails, choose a suitable alternative and forget stevia altogether. Use honey, pure maple syrup, or I personally prefer coconut palm sugar, since it is low glycemic (making it more diabetic friendly) and one of the most natural unprocessed forms of sugar available. It is naturally high in amino acids – has 10,000 times more potassium, 20 times more magnesium and 20 times more iron than conventional sugar. I use it all the time in my baking, from pound cake to muffins to a recent delicious cookie that is low in sugar – check out all those recipes here!

If you know someone who uses artificial sweeteners or stevia, please share this post with them.

Wishing you the best health life has to offer,

Food Babe

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369 Responses to “Is Stevia Safe?”

  1. Robin

    A company called Sunrider has been making stevia supplement since the early 80s. The liquid sweetener is not modified, and is taken mostly from the root, not the leaves. It is combined with chrysanthemum. They used to label it as a facial treatment and sold it with powdered clay to mix it with and apply to the face, but their clients knew it was (also) for tea and is beneficial to health. They began to sell it as a supplement when, finally, the FDA gave approval (when it suited big business). Then, Sunrider clients watched as the mass market sold this strange, clear liquid/crystals and called it stevia extract. Your stevia extract should never be clear; in fact, it is so dark it will permanently stain clothing/carpet/etc.

    Reply
  2. Marie

    Curious what Foodbabe says about Whey Low…it’s advertised as a low glycemic natural sugar. I’ve used it in coffee & it tastes just like sugar, maybe a tad less sweet with no aftertaste. It can be used for baking as well. Anyone know about this?

    Reply
  3. Daliza Salas

    what about a product i just started getting at: iHerb.com called Stevita?
    It is supposed to be pure Stevia. Does it contain anything I shouldn’t be eating?

    thanks

    Reply
  4. Jess

    Thanks so much for this post! It was mentioned that “maltodextrin” may be a GMO. If it’s not possible to make my own natural stevia sugar and our budget doesn’t allow the super organic kind, is stevia with maltodextrin used an acceptable substitute in the meantime since the certainty of it being a GMO is unsure?

    Reply
  5. Janice

    What about Xylitol, I cant find a lot of info on it.. I buy my stevia at the farmers market and that is the other ingredient in it.

    Reply
  6. Shone

    Silica gel is packaged separately from the main product, in those little bags. It is used as an inert desiccant, that is, it attracts and locks the moisture, thus preventing fungal development in the food. It is not present in the food itself, and the little bags should be thrown away after the food is used. Without a desiccant, the food would spoil and the fungi would create poisonous products while breaking down the food material.

    Reply
  7. Mary Kay

    Stevia Leaf Extract- Good or not?

    Reply
  8. clark vera

    I purchase Stevia leaves fresh in the market once a week. But I live in Lima Peru. They are excellent sweeteners, and I also give them to my sister who is Diabetic. Whenever big business gets involved, its all about the money. Here, a bottle of Steve extract powder cost only $3.00, and a 100 grams of leaves cost about $1.00.

    Reply
    • April (to clark vera)

      Wow – you are so fortunate

      Reply
    • Jen K (to clark vera)

      I live in Guatemala and want to see if I can buy some Stevia leaves here, what are they called in Spanish? Thanks!

      Reply
    • Amanda (to clark vera)

      There is a Peruvian brand called Nuestra Salud that recently started carrying the whole dried stevia leaf- it’s actually just the dried leaf, nothing else added. I bought it in a supermarket in Queens, NY. Their website is http://www.nsnuestrasalud.com. I use lots of their products and they are great, just pure herbs. I haven’t seen the stevia on their site yet but hopefully they will put it up soon!

      Reply
  9. Le Kif

    Gheez.. Too many theories. Best and most secure way of eating is to first get rich, buy own land, grow own organic plants, and eat them!

    Reply
  10. Anne

    We have grown and followed these directions last year for making liquid stevia. It did not end up tasting very good. We did, however, enjoy chewing on a leaf now and again. Perhaps we will try it again next year. The leaves do get more potent at the end of the season but before they turn brown. We did not know this going so perhaps that was our problem.

    Reply
  11. patty nicholson

    Where does one find stevia leaves?

    Reply
  12. Truthbetold

    What about the KAL brand of stevia?

    Reply
  13. CJ

    Saw some comments a while back that stevia is in the rag weed family and a light bulb went on in my head. Maybe just maybe that’s why I have had phlegm constantly in my throat the last couple years (about as long as I’ve been using it everyday). So much so that one would think I was a smoker and I am not nor have I ever been. I stopped using it and the phlegm has subsided a lot!

    Reply
  14. Karolina

    I am surprised that you actually recommend Sweet Leaf Stevia because I just tried to purchase the extract and it has natural flavors:-(

    Reply
    • Barbara (to Karolina)

      SweetLeaf Organic Stevia Extract has a powdered form in a bottle that looks like a spice bottle and it only contains organic stevia extract, but it you buy the individual packets they have other stuff added

      Reply
  15. Donna

    https://www.mountainroseherbs.com has an all natural stevia leaf herb powdered form, still green, no additives. taste very sweet with a bit of a tea flavor to it.

    Reply
  16. Shawn

    I don’t know where your getting this BS that sugar is addicting, but sugar is not addicting. Your body naturally craves more of it when you metabolism slows down because it is easier to break down and use as energy. This is one of the reasons why couch potatoes usually end up diabetic. The human body is not intended to sit around on it’s ass for long periods of time, and it starts looking to go into hibernation mode and store fat when you sit around a lot. That’s why you need exercise. No amount of good and healthy eating or pills will compensate for lack of exercise. Healthy eating will help, but you have to get some exercise for it to do any real good.

    Reply
  17. Tess

    What about “Skinny Girl” Stevia and Agave/Stevia products?

    Reply
    • Mr Brown (to Tess)

      Basically everything “Skinny Girl” has artificial flavors/colors so the Stevia/Agave products are really irrelevant. I wish it weren’t true, but they sure use a lot of marketing hype.

      Reply
  18. Lori

    I tend to go for unrefined sugars, such as turbinado or sucanat, at least those still have most of the minerals left in them, It may not be the ideal choice, but at least it’s not white refined sugar.

    Reply

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