Stevia: good or bad? It’s a burning question that several health bloggers have tackled lately. So this Trim Healthy Tuesday, I thought I’d jump in and warn my readers of the DANGERS of stevia. Because really…that’s what these types of posts are all about, right?
I realize that I’ve been remiss in taking advantage of the food fear niche in blogging. So readers, let’s make this one go viral! Warn your friends! Stalk your neighbor’s grocery carts…let’s get whipped into a sugar-free froth of frenzy and discover the TRUTH behind the mass marketed white powder.
If I’m understanding this genre right, the first thing I need to do is to PRETEND that stevia might be OK, because it’s an herb with a pretty long history of use. Stevia extracts are up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, and it has no glycemic impact. So it’s sounding kind of too good to be true, right? RIGHT?
OF COURSE it’s too good to be true! Now, this is where I abruptly switch over from discussing stevia in general, and I saddle and ride the EVIL corporate food Giants and their product that contains stevia: Truvia. Because, let’s be honest: this type of post is designed to stir up fear.
<ahem…back at it>
Truvia is NOT an herb! <duh> It only contains an extract of stevia, commonly called rebiana, rebaudioside A, or reb A on the label. And Truvia is PROCESSED with over 40 steps! Steps which my research reveals involve such nefarious and heinous processes such as mixing it with water, heating, cooling, drying, etc. How can they sleep at night?
So they are making what for all practical purposes amounts to a tea mash with the herb. They evaporate the tea, and continue to wash and REFINE the remaining extracts into WHITE POWDER using SOLVENTS. A-HA! Solvents, you say? What solvents? Primarily, they use ETHENOL. That would be grain alcohol. Does that sound evil? Because it’s exactly what I use to make vanilla beans into vanilla extract.
I’m pretty much tired of this now. Are you?
Now, I’m certainly not going to bat for “the food industry” as a whole. We have good reason to be skeptical about food handling processes and procedures. But as a consumer, I don’t want to waste my time digging around for the ‘dirt’ on every little detail of food processing. I’d like to just get down to making a good decision for my family. So that’s what we’re going to do here today.
Does Cargill use other not-so-nice solvents in the making of Truvia? The truth is: I have no idea. And neither do the other food bloggers. The majority of the extraction processes are a trade secret with any company that processes stevia. While it is a rather simple process of extraction, there are a lot of variables, and a lot of icky tasting finished products. So no one is lining up to give away their trade secrets.
What I DO know is that companies, just like people, come in all different qualities. I will choose to do business with those that I trust. So let’s get practical, and focus on the key issues with choosing whether to use a new herb or product.
Stevia: What Questions to Ask?
So, what questions do I ask when researching an herb or extract like Stevia?
- Is there historic use for the herb being used for the same/similar purpose that I’m planning to use it? Do they use it in similar quantities?
I’ve read quite a bit, and as an herb, stevia does have a history of use that I’m comfortable with. I’ve grown it in my garden, and used it in tea blends. I enjoy the taste in some things, but it’s not very convenient to use it in baked goods. The powdered leaf does have a strong flavor and bitter undertones, with a taste that has been compared to licorice.
As a refined extract, the flavor and sweetness profile *can* be far more palatable. Stevia was first extracted in the early 1930’s. It’s been used in Japan since the 1970’s, and comprises 40% of their sweetener market. Although the processes of extraction are more than likely continuing to be refined and developed, stevia extract is not brand new to the sweetener scene.
- Are there studies that show any problems with the herb, product, or extract? Are these studies valid as far as the amount of herb/extract used, and can they be replicated?
I’ve read a BUNCH of studies on stevia and reb A, and I feel comfortable using the extract for myself. If you are interested in studies, I find that the excerpts on Pubmed’s searchable database are sufficient to fill me in and give me jumping off points for more searching and reading on the topic. If I find a study that I’d like to research more in depth, I will search and usually find lots of peer review articles out there for more reading.
- Why am I considering this herb in the first place? I think this question is really important to consider. This is the baby usually gets thrown out with the bathwater. There are a LOT of really nutritious and natural sweeteners out there that I enjoy, and have a pretty long love affairs with.But the whole reason that I’m considering using stevia is to eliminate the blood sugar spikes that have contributed heavily to my metabolic issues, insulin resistance, and weight gain. And yes, I was eating primarily healthy sugars: organic maple syrup, raw honey, and organic cane sugar or sucanat. With the occasional Dr. Pepper thrown in for <ahem> research purposes. And I was a chubby Mama with a laundry list of health problems.I chose to use stevia extract *very effectively* as part of the Trim Healthy Mama plan to dramatically reduce my overall glycemic impact. It’s my primary sweetener for beverages, yogurt, etc., but it’s not the ONLY sweetener I use in my home. I also use the natural sweeteners I just mentioned for my growing kids, and for myself in moderation/on occasion now that I’m at goal weight.In retrospect, had I avoided stevia, I would still be 50 pounds overweight with compounding health problems. So it makes sense to me to evaluate your overall health picture as part of the evaluating risks associated with the sweetener you choose to use.
- Are there better alternatives to meet my needs than this herb or extract?The alternatives to stevia that I would consider that are non-glycemic are a non-GMO erythritol, xylitol, or chicory based sweeteners. But these options are not as budget friendly for me, so stevia stands out as a practical choice.
So, let’s talk about products, and what to look for.
What about all of the Stevia products on the shelves?
Here are the questions I ask when considering which products to purchase for myself and my family:
- Is this products made with GMO source ingredients? I prefer to use non-GMO sourced products.
- Do I trust the manufacturer of this product? Do they do purity testing, and generally show a high level of care about the quality of their products? The company website should reflect this, and give you specifics if this is a priority for them.
- Do I like the taste? This is a biggie with stevia products…some of them taste like licking the shoe of the guy who sweeps the aspartame factory.
- What are the other ingredients? With stevia products, ALWAYS check that ingredient label. Most stevia products in standard grocery stores are going to be the blends, where stevia is cut in with cheaper fillers. Healthy food or herb type shops will have a better selection of higher quality products, but STILL read the ingredients label. Are there ingredients that are not clearly labeled (such as ‘natural flavorings’) that I want to know more about? Will the company answer the questions I have about the product?
- Is it affordable and practical for my family to use? I find the blends to be pricier than the extracts. The one ounce bottle of NOW stevia can last me for 4-6 weeks, while the large tub of Truvia costs the same, but will *maybe* last a couple of weeks at most, since you use so much more per recipe.
These are questions that I’ll leave to my readers to research on your own, and apply your own tastes and priorities. I can share with you my conclusions:
What Stevia do I Use?
Updated 1/2016: My favorite is the THM Stevia. I buy the 3 oz bag and it lasts me about a year
You can find the THM stevia here (Amazon affiliate link)
Right now, I am using what I have left of either the old formula of NuNaturals Stevia Extract, which is no longer available on the market, or the NOW Organic Better Stevia Extract powder. I really like both of these products a lot, and they are both highly concentrated, so a large container will last a very long time. *Update: See my review of the THM Stevia here.
One Last Question about Stevia
There is one final question that I would recommend you ask if you choose to use a stevia extract product: Is this herb a good fit for me?
I’ve learned over the years that with pretty much any food, herb, or spice, there will be some people who just don’t react well to it. So it’s always wise to reflect on how your body is responding. Headaches are a common complaint for those who don’t do well with stevia. Some people do experience a feeling of low blood sugar with it as their body adjusts to eating lower carb meals.
If you have allergies to plants in the <massive> sunflower/ragweed family, then you may want to use extra caution with trying stevia products. That being said, I know many ladies who are allergic to ragweed, and who do just fine with stevia. So having a ragweed allergy does not make it a given that you won’t tolerate stevia.
I recommend buying the small 1 ounce shaker bottle first, for whatever brand you choose. This gives you a chance to test out flavors and see if it’s a good fit for you and your family. And the cute little shaker bottle is great to refill later if you do buy the economical bulk sized jar.
In Conclusion-Stevia: Good or Bad?
In closing, I’ve found a good quality stevia extract to be a VERY good addition to my kitchen, my waistline, and my health.
While I enjoy fruits, and other natural sweeteners, I really love having the option of sweetening a drink without spiking my blood sugar. I enjoy food, and I prefer to continue to enjoy sweet tastes as part of my daily food. Stevia makes it possible for me to really enjoy certain sweet foods and drinks, while keeping my blood sugar nice and stable.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments:
What types of questions do you ask in looking for a great quality product?
Do you use stevia in your home? What is your favorite brand?