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Food Babe Investigates Stevia: Good or Bad?

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This is a guest post by Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) who is a regular contributor on 100 Days of Real Food. To learn more about Vani check her out on “Our Team” page.


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? That’s what I went on a quest to find out. Here’s what happened…

Stevia

 

What Is Stevia?

Stevia Plant

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

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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.

SteviaIntheRawPureVia

“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.
OrganicStevia

silica gel do not eatEven 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 my favorite protein powder 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). SteviaExtract
  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 (Trader Joe’s has a version in a small bottle).

And when all else fails, choose a suitable alternative and forget stevia altogether. Lisa uses honey and pure maple syrup, and 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!

Comments have been closed on this article, which was written by Vani Hari. If you have a question or comment you can reach her at http://FoodBabe.com.


100daysVaniVani Hari a.k.a. Food Babe is an organic living expert, food activist and writer on FoodBabe.com. She teaches people how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store, how to live an organic lifestyle, and how to travel healthfully around the world. The success in her writing and investigative work can be seen in the way food companies react to her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth. To follow Vani, check her out on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

 

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429 comments to Food Babe Investigates Stevia: Good or Bad?

  • joey dowdell

    STEVIA IS A PROCCESSED SUGAR ANY TIME THAT ITS CHANGED FROM ITS NATURE FORM.

  • RM

    From doing some research on stevia I know there are “brands” that contain erythritol, xylitol, dextrose, agave inulin etc. and so it’s important to look for a brand that is in its purest form.

    My concern is what I’ve read from a nutritonist’s website. She states that “because stevia is sweet on the palate, the body assumes it is receiving sugar and primes itself to do so. Glucose is cleared from the bloodstream and blood sugars drop, but no real sugar/glucose is provided to the body to compensate. When this happens, adrenaline and cortisol surge to mobilize sugar from other sources (liver and muscle glycogen, or protein, or body tissue) to bring blood glucose back up”.

    This is quite a stressful issue for the body and its ability to remain healthy overall. So there is much to learn about this natural substance. Maybe as with all things nutritive (or not?), moderation is a key. Any comments? Thanks.

  • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hello RM. I think your nutritionist is right about the blood sugar science. If you want a response from Food Babe, hop over to her site as guest posts authors generally no longer respond after a few days. :) ~Amy

  • J-Sizzle

    @RM Body reactions could be true. I have felt slight adrenaline like symptoms and heart racing after drinking artificially sweetened non-caffeinated drinks/water, but only on an empty stomach. I drink lots of water and add flavors with stevia and on an empty stomach I always add some raw honey. BTW, It seems big manufacturers add other sweeteners to stevia extract because they are made from cheap US crops.

  • Hi
    I have been using stevia for over 30 years w/o a problem. I get the extract in a bottle with an eyedropper and also have used the dried leaf from an all natural source. Recently I found lo han extract from the monk fruit plant and it also is great tasting. Can you comment on this?

  • […] This is why all calories are not created equal & one reason why I don’t count calories. It matters more about types of food you are eating plus understanding how it is being metabolized in your body. Read more here. There is hope an alternative has to be true/pure Stevia. Again look in ingredients list. If you see something like chemical or sugar alcohol then you are not getting pure stevia but a chemical. Want to know which ones to buy or even how to make your own, well then look here. […]

  • […] If you’re cutting out sugar, but turning to Stevia instead, read this. […]