Stevia: Do You Know the Truth?

I wrote a post about Triclosan and the dangers of this ingredient, which you can read here: Triclosan and Colgate. This was the first in my articles about products and ingredients that people must be careful of, and stay away from as much as is possible. Well, this post is a warning about Stevia, a very popular sweetener used in many “diets” or different recipes as a substitute for sugar.

We tried Stevia over ten years ago when we started the Trim Healthy Mama plan (before we became vegetarians), as it is used in many of their recipes. Back then we could not get used to the terrible bitter taste, that leaves your mouth feeling very uncomfortable.

Recently we bought a powdered concentrated fruit drink (as we could not find anything else in the tiny shop where we stay), and did not realise it contained Stevia. My husband started getting terrible stomach cramping and we then read the ingredients on the fruit drink’s container, noting that it contained fruit and Stevia

We decided to look into Stevia in more detail and did lots of research. Here are our findings:

Is Stevia a healthy alternative to sugar?

Cane Sugar

Wikipedia describes in a lot of detail the history of the (very controversial) sugar product. Here are some of the very interesting details from their article:

Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. Table sugargranulated sugar, or regular sugar, refers to sucrose, a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose… 

Sugar was first produced from sugarcane plants in northern India sometime after the first century CE. The derivation of the word “sugar” is thought to be from Sanskrit शर्करा (śarkarā), meaning “ground or candied sugar,” originally “grit, gravel”. Sanskrit literature from ancient India, written between 1500 – 500 BC provides the first documentation of the cultivation of sugar cane and of the manufacture of sugar in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent… 

Known worldwide by the end of the medieval period, sugar was very expensive and was considered a “fine spice”, but from about the year 1500, technological improvements and New World sources began turning it into a much cheaper bulk commodity…

As sugar consumption grew in the latter part of the 20th century, researchers began to examine whether a diet high in sugar, especially refined sugar, was damaging to human health. 

Excessive consumption of sugar has been implicated in the onset of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have tried to clarify those implications, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that consume little or no sugar. 

In 2015, the World Health Organization recommended that adults and children reduce their intake of free sugars to less than 10%, and encouraged a reduction to below 5%, of their total energy intake.

Sugar and Diabetes

Due to the negative health results of sugar, many people have tried to cut out on as much refined sugar in their diet as possible. 

Sugar alternatives

Being used to the sweet taste of many food products, concerned people have replaced refined sugar with sugar alternatives. Examples of these are: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame, neotame, and sucralose). 

Unfortunately, many of these chemically-based artificial sweeteners were discovered to be unhealthy as well, and so natural sugar substitutes were preferred over the artificial ones (such as xylitol, stevia, erythritol, and yacon syrup). 

Honey, a natural alternative to sugar

Natural sugars like maple syrup, molasses, and honey (which are far less harmful than regular sugar and even have health benefits) contain high amounts of calories, and therefore people preferred to use the natural powder sugar substitutes. 

Calorie-free Stevia

Also called Stevia rebaudiana, it is a plant that is a member of the chrysanthemum family, a subgroup of the Asteraceae family (ragweed family), and is calorie-free. Because it is a nonnutritive sweetener (contains no calories), it is then naturally the first choice of many trying to lose weight, over healthy natural alternatives like molasses or agave. 

The Stevia plant
The Stevia plant
Are companies lying to us?

The companies that produce Stevia claim that it is better and healthier, because it is natural i.e. made from plants. 

It is being sold under the following (and many more) brand names:

  • Truvia,
  • CSR Smart,
  • SteviaSweet,
  • Sweetin,
  • PureVia
  • Sun Crystals
  • SweetLeaf,
  • Stevia in the Raw,
  • Pyure, and
  • NuStevia.

These are a very refined version of the original whole Stevia plant mixed with other ingredients such as erythritol (a sugar alcohol), maltodextrin (a starch), dextrose (glucose, usually derived from corn), sodium saccharin, sodium cyclamate, aspartame, and highly processed “natural flavorings”. 

Refined and “bulked up”

Stevia is mixed with other ingredients because it is so intensely sweet and therefore only a tiny bit is needed. The producers of this packet sweetener bulk up the product then with a bulkier “carrier” agent.

The side effects (symptoms) of sugar alcohol are:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • indigestion
  • cramping
  • bloating

Truvia is a product by the Coca-Cola company that contains both rebiana (a derivative of stevia) and erythritol.  PureVia is a similar product made by Pepsi

Stevia flowers
Stevia plant flowering

In the very informative website New Life Nutrition, you can read the article The Truth About Stevia. Here is an excerpt:

Stevia comes from a plant called Stevia rebaudiana that is native to Paraguay and Brazil. People in these countries have used stevia leaves for hundreds of years to help sweeten foods. Stevia is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It has been used in traditional medicine for stomach problems or for the treatment of burns. The fact that stevia is sourced from a plant may make it more appealing to some people, but this does not make it inherently better than chemically-based sweeteners. There has been a significant amount of research on artificial sweeteners and even though they do not contain any calories, they still may stimulate appetite and sugar cravings.

There is also some concern that stevia can cause low blood pressure, which may have an effect on people taking blood pressure medications. It has also been shown to interact with certain medications such as anti-inflammatories, anti-fungals, antibiotics, and some anti-cancer drugs. 

Problems with using Stevia

My husband and I discovered that there are many (many) problems with using Stevia in your diet. My mind was finally convinced of the real truth when I read the fantastic website Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine (FAIM). Dr Bruce Fife’s article on The Stevia Myth, is definitely worth reading. He is open and honest, explaining very clearly the details about this sugar substitute. 

Here is an excerpt:

However, I began to notice side effects with stevia that concerned me. I began to wonder if stevia was really as wholesome and healthy as promoters claim. This prompted me to look beyond the hype and delve into the science to uncover the facts. What I found shocked me! Much of the information we are told about stevia is more marketing hype than truth. The more I researched, the more I discovered that most of what we believe about stevia is simply not true – they’re myths and misconceptions created by promoters trying to sell a product.

Myths about Stevia

Dr Bruce continues with six major myths about Stevia, and gives us the facts (all of which are verified by published medical studies and common sense). The myth about it being good for you because it is a plant is explained beautifully, when he says, “There are many natural substances that are poisonous or otherwise harmful.”  

Belladonna: a very poisonous plant. Is Stevia safe to eat?
The Belladonna, a beautiful plant but very poisonous

And finally, if you really want to be shocked by the truth, read this lady’s incredible website called Jane’s Healthy Kitchen and her article titled Avoid! The Toxic Truth About Stevia. Here is some information from her well-written post:

How is Stevia Processed?

Processed stevia is made with a dangerous chemical refining process hidden from the public and deceptively marketed as “natural”. Manufacturers run into the problem that stevia leaves are extraordinarily resilient. The stevia cell walls are so tough that they resist the usual methods of boiling or centrifuging. Producers aim to to extract the active sweet compound, stevioside, and remove the funny aftertaste. In order to concentrate stevia to 300X concentration, toxic chemicals and artificial chemical enzymes are used, such as methanol, kerosene, alcohol, chlorine, ash, acids, titanium dioxide, arsenic, preservatives, chemical stabilizers, and emulsifiers.

The world’s largest producers of stevia hold patents for undisclosed, proprietary extraction methods. These patents belong to industry giants such as Coca Cola, PureCircle in Malaysia and USA, Cargill – maker of Truvia and PureVia, JustBio – A Canadian Biotech firm, McNeil Nuritionals LLC– maker of Splenda, and Chengdu Waggott Pharmaceutical Company in Sichuan China. That’s quite a line-up! Here are 5 common stevia extraction methods I located in public patent records. They all indicate the use of toxic chemicals, which are difficult or impossible to remove.

Wow, and wow! That is quite a stunning list of toxic chemicals, right! Jane goes on to list the extraction methods, and other very factual lists of information and resources to show how dangerous refined Stevia really is.

Stevia Fatigue

In researching, I found out that there is even a name for Stevia side-effects: Stevia fatigue. Side effect symptoms include sneezing and runny noses, upset stomaches, abdominal pain, and occasional feelings of weakness. I have also read about infertility issues due to Stevia, as well as severe anxiety.

In conclusion:

There are many articles saying that Stevia is safe as long as you only have it now and then, in small doses and not all the time. After reading all the above websites, resources, scientific articles and discussions, I definitely know that I will be avoiding all Stevia products and keeping my family away from it as well. 

We experienced mild side effects from it, and I would not like to test whether all of the above are correct or not…

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