Move over aspartame, stevia is the newest star in the world of zero calorie sweeteners. Derived from the leaves of a plant indigenous to South America, stevia is becoming ubiquitous around the world as a sugar substitute. But is it safe? Let’s check out what the science has to say.
Like many of the sugar substitutes, the extracted sweetness from stevia is potent, sources vary, stating it is between 30 and 300 times sweeter than standard table sugar — so a little goes a long way.
Since 2008, stevia has been dubbed GRAS (generally regarded as safe) by the USDA. However, a visit to the FDA’s website reveals several pages stating the opposite—that the FDA does not condone stevia extracts as GRAS.
Hmmm, then what do the scientific studies have to say?
The evidence is scant, and a bit confusing, perhaps contributing to the conflicting views of the USDA and FDA.
Not surprisingly, given its low/no calorie properties, studies have shown that insulin and blood sugar levels do not spike nearly as much with stevia sweetened drinks when compared to the sugar-saturated sodas. A study looking at stevia and blood pressure did not find that using stevia either elevates or decreases blood pressure. Several studies looking at the potential for stevia to cause cancer have not shown damaging effects to DNA and chromosomes in animals receiving stevia supplementation.
So what’s the verdict? It seems that small amounts of stevia will likely do no harm to your body—it might very well be “generally safe.”
The larger question is this: How and why are you using stevia? To support your zero-calorie diet soda addiction, or to sweeten a homemade, whole foods packed muffin without sugar? There’s a difference here; the less processed your food, the better. And if you’re looking to sweeten baked goods more naturally, think about using unsweetened applesauce, dates, or mashed banana instead of a powdered substitute.