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All About Stevia

Stevia is touted as an all-natural zero-calorie sweetener. Is there any downside?

By
Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N,
Episode #044

Making Stevia More User-Friendly

Over in the baking ingredients aisle, you might find stevia that’s been cut with a filler like maltodextrin or inulin fiber to make it pour and measure more like regular sugar. This more user-friendly format is available in little packets and is often found right next to the Equal or Splenda.

The newest stevia-based sweeteners, Truvia and PureVia, take the processing even one step further. They take just one of the many sweet compounds found in natural stevia, purify it and then mix it with zero-calorie sugar alcohols in an effort to improve the flavor profile. By this point, I’m really not sure how natural you could say this product is. It includes ingredients extracted from stevia leaves. But it doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to the stevia found in nature. These highly-processed proprietary versions also carry a hefty price tag.

Safety and Usefulness of Stevia

Even in its highly refined state, I think stevia is quite safe. And by that I mean that I think it’s unlikely to cause liver failure, brain cancer, or cause you to grow a third ear in the middle of your chest.

How does it taste? Well, if you hate the taste of artificial sweeteners, I suspect you won’t like stevia much better. If you’re accustomed to using Equal or Splenda, you’ll probably also find the stevia-based sweeteners acceptable. And if the idea of a more natural low-calorie sweetener appeals to you, I think stevia is definitely a step in the right direction.

The Fly in the Ointment

But if you’re hoping that stevia is a miracle sweetener that will allow you to eat all the sweet stuff you want without any consequences, I’m not sure that there is such a thing. In my earlier show on artificial sweeteners, I talked about the fact that people use them to cut calories but, paradoxically, often end up gaining weight.

Part of this may be psychological…the old “I can super-size the fries because I ordered a diet coke” mentality. But there also appears to be a biological aspect. When we eat things that taste very sweet but contain no calories, it seems to confuse our appetite regulation systems. Zero-calorie sweeteners can actually increase your appetite, especially for more sweets. They may also short-circuit the hormonal signals that tell us when we’ve had enough to eat.

Researchers are still trying to pin down the details and explain why people who consume more zero-calorie sweeteners seem to gain more weight. Up until now, they’ve been focused on artificial sweeteners like those in Equal and Splenda. But I don’t see why the same concerns wouldn’t also apply to stevia-based sweeteners.

Sweets Should Be Treats, not Mainstays

And that’s why I really think it’s in your best interests to limit your intake of sweet foods and beverages, no matter how they are sweetened. Here’s how I would think about it: Added sugars should take up no more than 10% of your calories. That’s about 50 grams, or the equivalent of about four tablespoons of granulated sugar per day.

When you’re totaling up your “added sugars,” you should include all the sugar, honey, or syrup that you put in or on your food as well as any sugars that are in beverages and packaged foods. You can see how much sugar is in these foods by checking the nutrition facts label.

 

Now, if you want to use zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar—you’ll save yourself some calories and might make your diet a bit healthier. But you still shouldn’t be eating more sweet stuff than you would if you were using sugar and following the 10% rule.

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Email me at nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com.  Please include the topic of your question in the subject line of your email. You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page or hit me up on Twitter.

Have a great day and eat something good for me!

RESOURCES: 

Frequently Asked Questions about Stevia by David Richard, author of Stevia: Nature’s Sweet Secret

A Review Comparing PureVia, TruVia, and SweetLeaf Stevia Extract

Review of the Scientific Research on PureVia and TruVia

Stevia image courtesy of Shutterstock

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