Your doctor has told you to avoid sugar and carbs. In fact, all the commercials say to swap your sugary sweeteners for something like natural sweetener stevia. Besides, it looks pretty harmless, or does it?
Let’s take a look at what stevia’s side effects are and whether it is really safe for you.
What Is Stevia Rebaudiana?
Stevia is a natural food sweetener that manufacturers derive from stevia rebaudiana. The plant is native to South America but is now available in many countries worldwide. People have been using the leaves of this plant as a sweetener to replace refined white sugar and artificial sweeteners for centuries. Makers market it as an alternative to sugar that you can use for both cooking and baking.
Besides, you can also use it as a beverage base or in fruit juices and smoothies, to name just a few uses. Some brands of stevia contain the whole leaf.
However, if your stevia product has Reb-A or rebaudioside on the label, it doesn’t contain whole leaves. Reb-A is a highly processed, non-nutritive, zero-calorie sweetener. Although the majority of stevia sweeteners feature Reb-A, they don’t have as much stevia as natural extracts made from whole leaves.
Consistently among the sweetest natural sweeteners, stevia leaves are about 200 times sweeter than table sugar. So, you only need small amounts to create a very sweet product.
Sweeteners on the market that contain Reb-A are famous as novel sweeteners since their formula contains different sweeteners. These mostly include sugar alcohols like erythritol and glucose in dextrose.
It is important to note that the FDA has only recently approved the use of high-purity glycosides of the sweet leaf as food additives in limited quantities.
Since stevia leaves and crude extracts were not approved as food additives by the FDA, companies can’t market them as sweetening products.
Risks And Side Effects Of Stevia
The FDA allows for 4 mg of steviol equivalents per kg of body weight. This number represents a daily intake of about 12 mg of highly purified stevia leaf extract per kilogram of body weight.
The FDA has also confirmed the safety of this plant, and many studies have shown that highly pure stevia powder is safe for human consumption. Researchers continue to study the long-term effects of the sweetener. Although animal studies showed its adverse effects, recent studies have disapproved of many of them.
Some potential adverse effects of natural stevia sweeteners are as follows:
- Low Blood Sugar
One major concern about stevia is its effect on blood sugar levels. This can often be a major deterrent for people worried about their diabetes. But studies show that using stevia as an alternative to sugar does not affect blood glucose levels.
According to a study, consuming 1 cup of stevia-sweetened tea daily for eight weeks has no significant impact on blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
This aspect’s beneficial or adverse nature depends on your health status.
- Low Blood Pressure
Stevia is a vasodilator. Vasodilators act as a blood vessel and smooth muscle relaxants.
Theoretically, this could be beneficial for individuals with high blood pressure. However, whether these effects are significant enough to affect patient outcomes is unclear.
Stevia may cause health complications for people with chronic low blood pressure. This can occur when you use stevia in excess or taken over a long period.
Speak to your doctor about prolonged stevia usage if you have a history of low blood pressure or are using the supplement for diabetes prevention and management.
- Endocrine (Hormonal) Disruption
Research says steviol glycosides, an active compound in stevia, can potentially interfere with your endocrine system. A 2016 study of sperm cells exposed to stevia found that the extract increased progesterone synthesis.
- Allergic Reaction
Stevia products can lead to allergic reactions. It may be due to stevia leaf extracts or the other additives used in the product, like sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols are natural carbohydrates in plants and makers use them to sweeten sugar-free products. Because sugar alcohol is not true sugar, the body does not break it down the same way as regular sugar.
However, it does cause changes in your blood sugar. Since many stevia sweeteners contain sugar alcohols, such products can cause some uneasy symptoms.
These include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, and bloating. However, erythritol, among other sugar alcohols, poses a lower risk.
Stevia allergy is extremely rare, despite being commonly associated with stevia. The FDA and European Union have approved stevia as a safe sweetener. So, it is unlikely that you will react to this natural sweetener powder.
- Sore Muscles
Stop consuming stevia if your muscles are sore. In some cases, this may be because of stevia consumption. However, there is little research on this.
While most people tolerate stevia well, some people have reported muscle tenderness and pain after taking stevia. In one study, these symptoms were traced back to the action of steviosides on muscles and tissues. If this happens to you, stop taking it immediately and consult with a doctor.
Numbness in hands and feet is a rare side effect of stevia, but there’s anecdotal evidence that some people experience this. Individuals who notice numbness in their hands or feet should stop using stevia and consult with their doctor immediately.
- Gastrointestinal Problems
Some people may experience nausea, bloating, and appetite reduction when starting stevia, but these symptoms should go away after the body adjusts. It mostly happens when people consume highly refined stevia products.
Although the relationship between artificial sweeteners and diarrhea is still unclear, studies have discussed this potential association. It is believed that stevia may cause potential gut damage and diarrhea.
However, there is no concrete evidence to establish a connection between these sweeteners and gut harm. In fact, a review study states that stevia can help flourish some bacteria crucial for bowel function.
- Liver Damage
Several animal studies suggest stevia can cause liver damage. However, there are no human studies to confirm that finding. More research is needed before we can conclude the potential for long-term effects on humans.
- Effects On Kidneys
Stevia is generally considered safe. As a potentially diuretic substance, stevia may increase urine production and excretion of minerals such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Because the kidneys are responsible for filtering blood and urine formation, there was initial concern about long-term consumption of stevia causing damage to this organ.
However, recent research suggests that long-term consumption does not affect kidney function. In fact, studies suggest that stevia may help in avoiding kidney damage.
Regular use of stevia may lead to side effects for some people. If you have diabetes, high or low blood pressure, or are prone to dehydration, you should avoid stevia.
Even if you take stevia, monitor your blood pressure and blood sugar regularly. Blood pressure and blood sugar problems are more common in people with diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
Stevia can interact with certain medications, so ensure you do not have any adverse effects on your body. Hence, talk to your doctor before using any stevia product.
In general, the following are some factors that maximize the risk of stevia side effects:
- Heart problems and medications
- Kidney issues and treatment
- Liver damage and medication
- Cancer medication
- Blood pressure treatment
Pregnancy And Stevia
Pure stevia has been approved by the American Pregnancy Association and other medical authorities when used in moderation as safe for pregnant women. In fact, animal studies have shown that this all-natural ingredient does not harm mothers or their fetuses.
You can mix stevia with other ingredients, and saccharin is a common artificial sweetener in many stevia products. Saccharin has been linked to several serious complications, including cancer and problems with pregnancy and childbirth.
If you are pregnant, you should probably avoid high doses or long-term use of stevia. This is because stevia may increase the workload on your organs, including your bladder, kidneys, and heart.
Besides, overuse of stevia during pregnancy may lead to:
- Mood swings
- Kidney dysfunction
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps
Stevia With Other Drugs
Studies state that stevia can interact with certain medications and drugs. So, it is better to avoid these combinations.
- Stevia And Antihypertensive Drugs
Research has shown that stevia may lower blood pressure. Also, it can interfere with certain blood pressure medications, including Lasix, Norvasc, Cozaar, and Diovan. If you are on blood pressure medications, be sure to talk with your doctor before starting to use the sweetener.
- Stevia And Antidiabetic Drugs
If you are taking anti-diabetes medication and are also taking stevia, it may lower your blood sugar levels too much, so keep this in mind. However, more experimental work needs to be done in this area before we can recommend stevia for diabetes control.
Before you take this medication, talk to your doctor about all the medications you take. They may change the dose of your diabetes medication, including Avandia, Amaryl, Actos, and DiaBetas.
- Stevia And Lithium
Stevia is believed to have diuretic properties. Therefore, it can decrease the excretion of lithium from your system, leading to increased lithium blood serum levels. While this has not been proven, it is better to avoid stevia if you take any form of lithium.
Are All Forms Of Stevia Safe?
Stevia sweeteners are natural go-to options for people looking to cut back on sugar, but they can be confusing. While some foods naturally contain stevia, and the herb has been used for centuries in its whole-leaf form, the FDA has not yet approved all extracted compounds to be labeled as GRAS ingredients.
Below are some common forms of stevia present in many products on the market today:
- Purified Stevia
Purified stevia extracts (Rebaudioside A) are also available in the US. These are made from a purified extract of stevia leaves, which will contain no fillers or additives.
These sweeteners are also excessively processed than other forms of stevia. However, they still retain the many health benefits of whole-leaf stevia. According to FDA standards, stevia extracts must have more than 95% rebaudioside A glycosides and may not have other steviosides or rebaudiosides.
- Green Leaf Stevia/ Crude Stevia Extracts
Unprocessed stevia is the least processed type of stevia-based sweetener and produces a 10–15x sweeter product than sugar. This unprocessed version probably contains a combination of steviosides and rebaudiosides. Unrefined, unprocessed, and all-natural, this crude stevia contains a blend of both steviosides and rebaudiosides.
- Altered Stevia
Altered stevia is the least healthy option among the three stevia forms. Many commercial stevia blends use complex ingredients to achieve their sweetness.
In fact, some products may even include sugar as one of the ingredients with the least amount of stevia extracts in them. Additionally, these products are over 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar or sucrose, so it’s easy to overdo it.
Most stevia products use processes to formulate altered blends that FDA deems as proprietary. The processes include chemical solvents, like acetonitrile, and a corn-based derivative, erythritol. These extracts contain only a small amount of rebaudioside A in the United States due to FDA regulations.
- Organic And Non-Organic Stevia
Organic stevia comes from stevia that farmers grow organically, so you know that your sweetener is without any pesticides or chemicals. It’s also non-GMO and naturally gluten-free. Therefore, it’s a great option for those with allergies or sensitivities to common allergens like gluten and soy.
Non-organic stevia is also used as a sweetener. The plants may have been grown with pesticides and chemicals to make them grow faster or more resistant to pests. However, they are still non-GMO, have no glycemic impact, and are naturally gluten-free.
Are Stevia Sweeteners Sugar Substitutes?
Stevia is revered as a natural sugar substitute. Although the intense sweetness of stevia leads many people to believe it is dangerous for their health, studies have shown that stevia is safe when consumed in moderation.
It offers many health effects compared to other sugars and sweeteners. Here’s how it compares with other forms:
While sugar can have some positive effects, like boosting mood, reducing stress, and regulating hormones, it’s important to keep your consumption in check.
You don’t need a reason to ditch sugar; it’s one of the easiest weight-gain culprits out there. That’s especially true if you’re trying to lose weight, have diabetes, or have liver disease since it packs in more than 16 calories per teaspoon with no nutritional benefit.
The allure of natural sweeteners like stevia is strong since it offers many potential health benefits. It has zero calories and may help increase insulin sensitivity and lower cholesterol and hypertension.
- Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols (SAs) are a popular alternative to artificial sweeteners because of their low-calorie content. These include sorbitol, erythritol, xylitol, and mannitol.
They are not as bad as artificial sweeteners and do not raise blood glucose like regular sugar. Still, it can produce gastrointestinal distress, such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
While erythritol is a common and safe sugar substitute, it may not be right for you. Many people prefer stevia because they don’t want to consume products made from genetically modified corn.
- Natural Sweeteners
Although stevia is one of the best natural sweeteners and you can use it in moderation, many other options exist. Raw honey, maple syrup, dates, coconut sugar, balsamic glaze, and blackstrap molasses are all healthy natural sweeteners you can use sparingly.
Remember that these sweeteners lead to insulin release and have a calorie content. Still, because of the macromolecules in them, natural sugars are better for your health and offer certain nutritional benefits.
- Artificial Sweeteners
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that you’ll find in many diet sodas and other sugar-free products, may not be your body’s friend.
Although it’s low calorie, this ingredient can harm those sensitive to it. It can lead to indigestion as well as depression and headaches, among other symptoms.
Splenda or sucralose is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market. Because the FDA considers it safe, its manufacturer has aggressively marketed the product as a healthy alternative to real sugar. However, some studies suggest that sucralose may have side effects since your body digests it differently.
Although sucralose is safe for heat cooking, a scientific report has stated otherwise. Sucralose heating at high temperatures creates chloropropanols which are toxic compounds. Compared to stevia, sucralose may negatively influence insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism.
To End On: What Effects Does Stevia Have Overall?
Stevia is a natural sweetener that comes from the stevia plant. People have been using it for centuries in South America for foods and drinks. While the FDA considers it generally safe for human consumption and deemed low-risk, it can cause side effects and complications if you use it in excess.
Research has linked long-term use of high doses to appetite suppression, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Although stevia is safe for use in pregnancy in low doses, it is better to avoid it altogether as we require more research on its efficacy.