While we’re all for enjoying some Ben and Jerry’s once in a while, too much too often can cause your sugar intake to skyrocket. According to the American Heart Association, American adults are eating around 77 grams of sugar per day, which adds up to about 60 pounds of added sugar per year!
This is where sugar substitutes like stevia come into play. Stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener that gives you the sweet flavor you’re looking for without the high calorie count of sugar.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, while stevia is generally safe to use, it does come with some side effects you’ll want to keep in mind before you dump it in your coffee.
Stevia rebaudiana is the plant name for stevia, which is in the same family as the sunflower (Asteraceae). The products you buy at the grocery store don’t include the whole stevia leaf — instead, they contain a highly refined extract called rebaudioside A (Reb-A).
Reb-A is a form of steviol glycoside that’s about 200 times sweeter than table sugar and is typically combined with other sweeteners. For example, Truvia is a blend of Reb-A and erythritol (sugar alcohol), and Stevia in the Raw is a combo of Reb-A and dextrose (glucose).
Reb-A sweeteners comes in multiple forms, including:
Current research shows certain forms of stevia are A-OK. Reb-A stevia leaf extracts you’ll find at the grocery store are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA.
A 2016 study also found that all forms are probably safe for general use. But the FDA doesn’t recommend consuming stevia leaves and crude extracts, which are both less refined stevia compounds. (So growing and using your own stevia leaves might not be OK.)
It’s also important to read labels on stevia products if you want to avoid artificial sweeteners. Stevia is often paired with other sweeteners such as:
- sodium saccharin
- sodium cyclamate
And if you’re trying to get the most nature out of your stevia, you should also be aware that some stevia products contain “natural flavors.”
The FDA is generally cool with these ingredients, and foods that have this label should contain no artificial or synthetic colors or flavors. But “natural flavor” could still include ingredients that are highly processed.
Stevia glycosides like Reb-A are considered safe by the FDA. But, like most things, stevia still has pros and cons. Here are the main side effects to look out for when using stevia.
Stevia is often combined with other sweeteners that have their own side effects. Sugar alcohols such as erythritol can cause some tummy issues if you’re extra-sensitive to them. Consuming too much can lead to symptoms like:
But stevia on its own may actually boost the growth of some bacteria that are important for bowel function, according to a 2019 review.
Lower blood sugar
Back in the day it was also believed that too much stevia could actually make your blood sugar levels drop too low, but further research has proven that’s unlikely.
A 2020 study found that people with type 2 diabetes who drank 1 cup of stevia-sweetened tea per day for 8 weeks had no significant changes in their blood glucose levels.
This side effect might be good or bad news for you, depending on your individual health status.
Lower blood pressure
Stevia also has a way of making your blood vessels chill out, widen, and allow blood to pump easily through your body, which contributes to overall lower blood pressure.
A 2016 review discusses a study of more than 100 women with hypertension. After they consumed 0.25 grams of stevioside (another form of stevia similar to Reb-A) daily for 1 year, their blood pressure dropped.
Like lower blood sugar, this side effect could be either positive or negative for you, depending on your health.
There’s no evidence that stevia can cause cancer, and research suggests it might actually help cancer patients.
Test tube cell studies have found that stevia has an anticancer effect on cells. One 2018 study found that stevia inhibited six different gastrointestinal cancer cells as effectively as a chemotherapy treatment.
A study published in 2017 found similar results but focused on breast cancer cells. Depending on the dosage, stevia stopped cancer cell growth, leading to more cell death.
Don’t go relying on stevia to treat cancer, but you should be safe to consume it in moderation.
There’s limited research on whole-leaf stevia and its effect on pregnancies and on babies once they’re born. But stevia made with Reb-A has been evaluated and is considered safe during pregnancy.
Just be sure not to overdo it — stick to a few packets or teaspoons per day.
Side effects like lowering blood sugar and blood pressure could be pluses of stevia for some people.
A 2020 review of human and mice studies found that stevia could have medical uses to help with glucose control, decrease inflammation, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol. But more research is still needed.
More good news: There have been few to no reports of hypersensitivities or allergies to stevia since 2008. The same review mentions that any allergies reported were due to improperly filtered stevia extracts.
Probably the biggest and most obvious benefit of stevia is that it helps you reduce your sugar intake.
Consuming too much table sugar can lead to weight gain, blood sugar issues, and increased risk of heart disease. Opting for a sweetener like stevia can help reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet and your chances of dealing with these conditions.
Too much sugar also isn’t very kind to your smile. Choosing a product like stevia instead could help reduce the number of cavities you have, leading to fewer trips to the dentist. 😁
More research needs to be done on stevia to verify the pros and cons that could come along with it. But the current research shows that most stevia extracts are safe to consume and have limited complications, as long as you’re using a quality product.
If you start swapping out sugar for stevia and notice strange side effects, stop using it and follow up with your healthcare provider ASAP.