Sugar is public enemy number one in the nutritional world right now—you’ll be hard up to find a health expert willing to defend the (highly inflammatory) sweet stuff. The fact that several alternatives exist has made quitting the white stuff easier than ever, and none are quite as popular as stevia.
This alt-sweetener, which is technically an extract from the stevia rebaudiana plant, is natural, zero cal, and has a much more potent flavor than sugar. (If you’re subbing it into a recipe, you only need to use an eighth of the sugar amount.) And unlike can sugar, it’s readily available not only in crystal form, but as liquid, too. So does that mean you can add it into your almond milk latte with blind abandon? Well, maybe. It turns out the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Here, two experts weigh in on whether stevia is actually healthy. Their differing opinions prove that coffee and coconut oil aren’t the only so-called health foods whose wellness cred is up for debate—and their arguments go way beyond just calories and glycemic index count.
Keep reading for the truth about stevia.
“Stevia is a safe alternative—in moderation”
When stevia went mainstream, LeVeque did her homework. “When I was told it was a leaf, I thought, yeah, well, so is cocaine. What is it?” she says. For her, its natural status wasn’t enough to make it safe, so she looked into scientific research. What she found was encouraging.
“What I look for is, does it elevate glucose or insulin? How does it compare to sugar? And what I found was that stevia does not cause elevation, which is encouraging when it comes to diabetes and other blood sugar-related issues,” she says. “I do think it’s a clean alternative for people who typically [use] sugar in their coffee.”
“Stevia does not cause [glucose or insulin] elevation.”
While LeVeque says the alt-sweetener is safe, she notes it’s important to stick with organic stevia as opposed to Truvia, a popular brand that includes sugar alcohol (which can cause digestive distress in some people) and natural flavors (which may not be so natural). And she also doesn’t recommend using it several times a day, since it’s basically training your brain to continue craving treats.
“Every time you have something sweet, it’s rewarding—and there’s a release of dopamine in the brain. So having a sweetened smoothie in the morning could make you crave a brownie in the afternoon,” she says. In other words, save it for emergencies only—like when your Starbucks order is particularly strong.
“Stevia causes gene mutations—there are safer alternatives to use”
John Pezzuto, PhD, food and drug researcher, dean of Long Island University College of Pharmacy
Pezzuto was first introduced to stevia in the late ’80s—before it was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. “I was working with a team that wanted to use natural sweeteners and one of these was stevia,” he says. “My job was to test the products to see if they were mutagenic, to give an idea about safety.”
Pezzuto says what he found surprised him: Stevia interacted with DNA, mutating the genes. (Yes, for real.) So how did it get FDA approved? Despite the mutating genes, there have been no studies showing that stevia causes cancer or any other health problems when tested on rats. “Mutating genes don’t necessarily cause cancer, but as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t necessarily eat something that [impacts DNA] when there are alternatives,” he explains.
“Mutating genes don’t necessarily cause cancer, but I would not necessarily eat something that [alters DNA] when there are alternatives.”
So what sugar alternative does Pezzuto feel safer using? Interestingly enough, he turns to something artificial: sucralose. (AKA the main ingredient in Splenda—which, by the way, has been shown to have its own problems). “A lot of people think ‘natural’ means ‘good,’ which is beyond ridiculous,” he says. “Some of the most toxic substances on earth are natural products. And likewise, just because something is artificial doesn’t mean it’s bad. Sucre, for example, doesn’t cause a gene mutation.” Sure, he’s familiar with some of the other options out there, like monk fruit, but Pezzuto says he prefers the taste of sucralose—and, since he considers it safe, that’s what he goes for when a craving hits. (And back to his point, many alternative sweetener brands cut their monk fruit with stevia.)
And you know how stevia is sweeter than sugar? That might not actually be a good thing, since what you’re getting is almost a concentrated hit; scientists have found that it still causes cravings, and has been linked to weight gain.
There is something the two experts agree on, however: More long-term testing needs to be done to determine whether stevia’s really the star sweetener it’s often made out to be. “Stevia has been used in South America for 1,500 years without any [known] side effects, but we don’t really know unless something is strictly studied,” LeVeque says. “There haven’t been any studies yet that cause me to be concerned, but I’m always cognizant and looking for more.”
And if you’re still not convinced? You can always avoid sweets altogether.
The sweetener game can be hard to navigate, so here are the pros and cons of some other sugar alternatives. Plus, find out if you are addicted to sugar without even knowing it.