Understanding Stevia Leaf Extract
Stevia is a calorie-free sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Some manufacturers extract a compound called Rebaudioside A from the leaves and add sugar extracts or additives to create their final Stevia products.
Other Stevia products are 100 percent pure Stevia extract. In either case, Stevia leaf extract is about 150 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, so you use much, much less of it when substituting.
When it comes to sugar substitutes, Stevia has a kind of „health halo“ because it comes from plants, and we tend to consider everything from a plant as natural and healthy. But it’s not that black and white.
„Stevia has become a star among calorie-free alternative sweeteners because it comes from a plant and is therefore considered natural. People feel much more comfortable with it as there is so much controversy about artificial calorie-free sweeteners,“ explains Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD.
But generally, when we consume Stevia, it’s not the whole plant. Instead, we consume an extract from the Stevia leaf, sometimes with some additives, says registered dietitian and certified athletic trainer Dana Angelo White, RD, ATC.
Just as vegetable chips are not necessarily „healthy“ or „unhealthy,“ neither Stevia nor vegetable chips inherently have health benefits.
However, people have been consuming Stevia for centuries, while most artificial sweeteners have been developed within our lifetimes. So, if you’re opting for a cleaner version, Stevia has a much better track record.
Stevia vs. Sugar: Is Stevia Better?
Although Stevia is not necessarily „healthy“ like broccoli and apples, it may be better for some people than consuming sugar, especially for those with a high sugar intake.
The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar per day and men no more than nine teaspoons (36 grams), so anything beyond that is likely too much.
„The population in general needs to reduce added sugar, and using Stevia as a sugar substitute is one way to achieve this. It’s so much sweeter than sugar, so you don’t need much of it,“ says Giancoli.
And lest you think natural sweeteners like coconut sugar or maple syrup are better for you, remember: they are all still sugar and have calories. It’s okay to indulge here and there, but moderation is key.
„There’s a place for all kinds of sweeteners, and sometimes you want to use particular sweeteners like honey for its delicious taste,“ says White. „But the label ’natural‘ can’t justify eating as much as you want, including Stevia.“
Instead, we need to keep the proportion of all sweeteners—natural or otherwise—in check and find other ways to reduce our sugar intake.
Does Stevia Affect the Body like Sugar?
Stevia and Weight
For those looking to lose weight, Stevia can be a helpful ingredient as it has no calories. „If you consume a lot of added sugar and use Stevia instead, you might consume fewer calories,“ says Giancoli.
Keep in mind: Just because something uses Stevia instead of sugar doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Ice cream made with Stevia is still ice cream. Weight loss happens when you reduce added sugar and calories, eat a healthy and balanced diet, and exercise, says Giancoli.
Stevia and Gut Health
The impact of Stevia on the gut microbiome has become a hot topic, but the research is not particularly conclusive. The studies suggesting an effect involve animals and large amounts of Stevia.
„You’d have to eat large amounts to have any effect, and most of us consume Stevia in small amounts,“ adds Giancoli.
For the other option? A high-sugar diet much more negatively affects the gut. A study in mice found that a high glucose or fructose level in the diet increased gut permeability, affecting metabolic health.
Is Stevia Safe?
Rest assured, Stevia is safe to consume. The FDA has reviewed and recognized applications for classifying Stevia (particularly Rebaudioside A, Stevioside, Rebaudioside D, or mixes containing Rebaudioside A and/or Stevioside as predominant components) as „generally recognized as safe“ (or GRAS) and has not questioned this conclusion.
„If you add it to your coffee or use it occasionally, it’s okay,“ says White. There is some scientific evidence: one study found that consuming 500 milligrams of Stevia three times a day for two years had no significant side effects.
However, note that whole leaf Stevia is not approved as a food additive and is not FDA GRAS.