Is Stevia a Safe Sweetener?
For years now, we've heard claims that stevia is a magic bullet sugar substitute. It reportedly sweetens foods and beverages without increasing blood glucose. And even better, it's natural -- coming directly from the leaves of the stevia plant.
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, on the other hand, continue to gain notoriety for their ill effects. Each have been implicated in adverse reactions ranging from headaches to digestive issues, and some even to cancer. They also destroy beneficial bacteria in the gut, wiping away many of the benefits of those probiotics you're taking.
The other issue with artificial sweeteners is that they douse the tastebuds in extreme sweetness yet offer no calories. Sounds good, right? Wrong. This confuses the brain. Sensing the sweet flavor, it anticipates a calorie surge. When that doesn't happen, sugar cravings can arise, making you hungrier. This can actually lead to weight gain instead of weight loss. In fact, one study showed that rats consuming the artificial sweeteners saccharin and aspartame increased their body weight by 700-800 percent in just twelve weeks.
But stevia isn't an artificial sweetener. So, is it safe?
Blood Sugar and Cravings
Recently, I began questioning stevia's role in supposed blood sugar stabilization. My husband and I started drinking a newer beverage called Bai. It is labeled as an "Antioxidant Infusion" drink. Truth be told, it really is delicious. There are different varieties, but this is the one we like. The company is doing some great things, too. The bottles are BPA free. And according to the label, the beverage is gluten-free, low glycemic, kosher, vegan, soy-free, and non-GMO. Those are some high standards! Bai sweetens their drinks with a combination of erythritol (a sugar alcohol) and stevia. Both sweeteners are generally deemed safe and favorable by nutritionists since they give sweetness without calories, AND they are natural and absorbed by the body.
After buying multiple cases of this beverage (and thoroughly enjoying them), I started to wonder whether or not this was actually helping or hurting my sugar cravings. I noticed that after drinking a bottle, I would experience feelings of hunger and wanting something sweet or carby to eat. I will say that this wasn't just in response to Bai. I also have some Sweet Leaf stevia drops that I sometimes add to water to flavor it. This, too, is delicious and helps me get in adequate amounts of hydration. However, I noticed these same sugar cravings were happening shortly after finishing a bottle of stevia sweetened water. Was this just in my head? I mean, stevia isn't supposed to do that, right?
I decided to do a little research. The overwhelming consensus is that stevia is a good sweetener when it comes to blood sugar and cravings. However, there are some nay-sayers.
In doing said research, I found some interesting tidbits of information. Just as artificial sweeteners provide sweetness without calories, stevia does the same. The brain is confused, and thus it primes the body to receive sugar from this sweet substance. Existing glucose is cleared from the bloodstream by insulin and blood sugars drop in preparation for a calorie and sugar surge ... but the surge never happens. So then, instead, the body must use adrenaline and cortisol to release sugar from stored sources like the liver or muscles to bring glucose back up. This can stress the adrenal glands if it happens too frequently.
So, essentially, my blood sugars were dropping after consuming stevia, making me crave sugar. This doesn't happen for everyone, but I believe it happens for me partially because I've suffered from adrenal fatigue on and off after having my second son. My body is extra sensitive to hypoglycemia. That being said, I'm not alone. I found quite a few testimonials of folks who experience the same thing.
So, in summary, stevia does not increase blood sugar, but it does increase insulin. Insulin elevation can lead to sugar cravings for some who are sensitive. It's probably best to consume some food (calories) when you do consume stevia-sweetened beverages to ward off hypoglycemia.
On top of the hunger and sugar cravings I was experiencing, a greater and more worrisome side effect started happening for my husband and me. We both started breaking out. One morning, my husband stocked the kitchen fridge with multiple bottles of watermelon Bai (my favorite), and told me they were all mine. He said he'd woken up with pimples the past few days and attributed it to the drink. He'd been drinking a couple bottles a day, and that was the only dietary change he'd made. This sparked a lightbulb moment for me ... my rosacea had been getting much, much worse. I'm always and constantly on a mission to control this skin condition I've suffered with for years. I know foods like dairy and milk chocolate can trigger it, but I'd never once thought about stevia. Now, in all honesty, I can NOT with absolute certainty confirm it was the stevia this time because my rosacea flares on and off frequently. But it made me suspicious.
When I thought about it, stevia is in much more than just these drinks I was consuming. It's in my protein powder that I add daily to my morning smoothies. It's in the branch chain amino acids that I sometimes mix with water after a workout. I was consuming it daily and multiple times a day.
After investigating, I found that stevia may not be a miracle sweetener for those who struggle with acne and other skin conditions.
At first glance, stevia does seem like it would help acne. Sugar wreaks havoc on the skin since it's so inflammatory, but stevia does not cause inflammation. However, it does increase insulin (as we mentioned above), and that darn insulin surge may be implicated in acne formation as well.
Remember how we noted earlier that the body has to release stored glucose in response to insulin? Well that stored sugar may be just as harmful as actually eating the sweet stuff. Another related issue is that cortisol, a hormone that signals glucose release when blood sugars drop, is directly associated with acne formation. When cortisol is elevated, especially on a chronic basis, it actually causes inflammation in the skin.
So, if you're acne-prone, consuming stevia regularly may not be the best idea.
Is it safe?
In a nutshell, yes. Since stevia comes from a plant, there's nothing artificial in it. However, sugarcane is also natural, and it comes with a host of problems in regard to blood sugar, insulin, and inflammation.
That being said, there are many studies finding the stevia has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant boosting properties. In particular, stevia has been shown in studies on hypertensive people to lower blood pressure substantially.
If you're diabetic, stevia is a great alternative to sugar. It is sweet without a glycemic load, and it's not artificial.
Be careful of those little packets of "stevia" though. They are only partly made of stevia and use a chemical extraction. The brand Stevita seems to be a good option and preferred by nutritionists. It is pure stevia and is available in liquid or powder. Having beverages or foods pre-sweetened with stevia is fine as well.
However, if you're not diabetic, using a little bit of raw honey, coconut sugar, monk fruit, or maple syrup are probably better alternatives. Sure, they do increase blood sugars a little, but they also come with nutritive value. Each has vitamins and minerals, and your body recognizes them as actual food. Now, you'll want to use these sparingly, but when you need a bit of sweetness, these safely do the trick.
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