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Is Stevia Good Or Bad For Your Health?

Medical Daily logo Medical Daily 17/5/2019 Seema Prasad
a sign in front of a tree © Photo courtesy of Cornell, Lauren Thiersch

Substituting artificial sweeteners with natural sweeteners is not always the safest choice since they are also loaded with calories. For instance, one teaspoon of raw honey has 64 calories, which is more harmful than a teaspoon of regular sugar that has 48 calories.

Stevia is one of many exceptions to the list of natural sweeteners (maple syrup, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, dates, etc.) that do not increase calories. The other two are aspartame and monk fruit. It is extracted from Stevia rebaudiana, a plant species found in Paraguay and Brazil.

In the past, it was used as a form of traditional herbal medicine to treats cuts, stomach issues and burns in the continent of South America. Instead of lessening sweetness as one would imagine, it tastes 200-250 times sweeter than regular sugar, but it has zero calories and carbohydrates. 

There are two types of stevia based on the glycoside molecules present, stevioside and rebaudioside. The latter is the most common in processed foods. The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) only approves of the usage of rebaudioside, since it is specifically found in organic Stevia. 

In 2008, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said stevia was safe to consume 4 mg per kilogram corresponding with the person’s body weight every day. It’s equal to 3.5 to 9 teaspoons of the pure and uncontaminated extract, adjusted to one's body weight. Before purchasing, it is necessary to check on the label if it is a 100 percent stevia extract in order to avoid crude stevioside that leaves a bitter aftertaste.  

Replacing regular sugar with stevia has both positive and negative health benefits. We looked at both sides, but scientists note that more research on stevia's impact on long-term health is still needed. 

Pros

Stevioside helps kill cancer cells and decreases inflammation in the body that could potentially lead to cancer. A study published in 2012 in the Nutrition and Cancer journal was able to establish that breast cancer spread was minimized when stevia was taken regularly. 

People on the paleo and keto diets tend to opt for stevia in place of sugar, for they try to avoid carbohydrates as much as possible and this is an efficient replacement. Sugar and calorie intake are brought down significantly since table sugar is full of calories and could even to lead obesity and type 2 diabetes. Good cholesterol increases and bad cholesterol decrease when added sugars are no longer part of the diet.

Cons

A group at the Natural Standard Research Collaboration led by co-founder Catherine Ulbricht, a pharmacist working at Massachusetts General Hospital, was putting together evidence of herbs versus supplements to treat hypertension, diabetes and other ailments. Ulbricht placed stevia in grade B for its usefulness in lowering hypertension. However, she warned against stevia possibly intefering with any medication prescribed by the doctor for insulin, cholesterol, fertility, inflammation, anti cancer and anti viral drugs, among other types of prescriptions. 

A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in December 2016 showed that 30 men who consciously did not consume drinks with regular sugar had a slightly increased appetite. The experiment was divided into four groups randomly. 

Four drinks with different sugar levels were given to these 30 reasonably healthy men, one drink had sucrose in it, another had aspartame, the other two contained stevia and monk fruit. Excluding sucrose, the last three are all natural sweeteners without calories and were added to understand if they made a difference to calorie intake. Around mid-morning, each participant was given one of the four drinks on the days when the test was being conducted.

The subjects who consumed drinks without sucrose were just compensating by eating more during lunch and surprisngly there was no difference in the energy intake that day, as well. Lead author and former research scholar Siew Ling Tey, of Agency for Science, Technology and Research, a board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Singapore, indicated that natural sweeteners are not always beneficial to losing weight. 

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