It’s no secret that many people eat too much sugar.
14% might not sound all that high, but it’s more significant than you might think.
If we apply it to the average daily caloric intake of adults in the United States, which is about 2,100 calories, we get about 300 calories per day from added sugars, or about 74 grams per day.
That’s a big problem for several reasons.
First, there’s the simple matter of energy intake.
Then there’s nutrition.
One of the primary reasons we need to eat food is to provide our bodies with the dozens of micronutrients it needs to function and stay healthy.
Well, as you eat more sugar, you displace calories that would, or at least could, otherwise come from more nutritious foods. This is why people that eat higher amounts of sugar tend to have more nutritional deficiencies than those that eat less.
And last is long-term health and vitality.
Being overweight and starving your body of essential nutrients are great ways to ruin your health, so it makes sense that research has found an association between high sugar intake and several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and possibly even cancer.
These molecules give the sweetness of sugar, but contain fewer (or zero) calories, and they include chemicals like aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin, and natural substances like stevia, xylitol, and erythritol.
And in this article, we’re going to talk all about the hottest natural zero-calorie sweetener on the market right now: stevia.
By the end, you’re going to know what stevia is, whether it’s safe to use, and how much you can eat and how much might be too much.
- What Is Stevia?
- Does Stevia Really Contain Zero Calories?
- Is Stevia Unhealthy?
- The Bottom Line on Stevia
Table of Contents
Stevia is a natural sweetener made from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana.
Indigenous South American people have been using these leaves to sweeten food for centuries, and now they’re a worldwide phenomenon.
One of the reasons so many people choose stevia over other natural options is it contains zero calories and has no effect on blood sugar levels, and it also lends itself well to cooking and baking.
Stevia extracts are produced industrially by many different companies, and are sold under names like Rebiana, Truvia, and PureVia.
The exact chemical makeup of the compounds developed by these companies varies, but they all contain molecules known as steviol glycosides.
These are what give the plant its sweet taste, and they’re far sweeter than sucrose (table sugar), which is why you can use far less stevia than sugar to achieve the level of sweetness that you desire.
For example, when baking, you can replace 1 cup of sugar with just 1/3 to 1/2 teaspoon of undiluted stevia powder, or 1 teaspoon of liquid stevia extract.
Yes, stevia really does contain no calories, despite being tremendously sweet.
Well, technically, stevia does contain calories–glycosides are sugar molecules, after all–but your body isn’t able to digest them in the same way as other foods.
You see, unlike table sugar, which is broken down into glucose and fructose, which are then absorbed into the blood stream for use, steviol glycosides pass through your small intestine intact.
It’s not until they hit the large intestine that they’re fully digested, but instead of going into your bloodstream (and thereby “counting” as calories), the stevia sugars are simply eaten up by bacteria.
Ideally, a zero-calorie sweetener produces little to no activity in the body after it’s absorbed.
Stevia doesn’t fit that bill perfectly, as it exerts slight biological effects, but, despite what sensationalist food bloggers and quack doctors would have you believe, there isn’t anything to be particularly concerned about.
Now, if you poke around on the Internet for information on the downsides of stevia, you’ll inevitably come across the claim that it can contribute to or even cause infertility.
- The rats were prepubertal, which makes them particularly susceptible to such effects.
- The stevia doses were extremely high–the equivalent of just over 600 grams per day (almost a pound and a half of stevia) for a 200-pound man.
- The majority of the research into stevia’s potential reproductive effects found it either has no effects at all, or, in some cases, positive effects.
Another common source of hand-wringing is the claim that stevia can damage your DNA, and thereby increase your risk of cancer.
This one seems more legitimate, because stevia was once banned here in the United States for fear that it may be carcinogenic.
That was the 1980s, though, and a lot of research has since been done on steviol glycosides and cancer, which is why stevia was exonerated and unbanned in 2008.
Here’s the long story short:
So, here’s what we can say for sure for now:
The estimated safe upper limit of stevia is at least 8 mg per kilogram of body weight per day, and may be as high as 25 mg/kg/day, which is far more than most people will ever get close to consuming (remember, this stuff is several hundred times sweeter than sugar!).
We’ll know more as more research is done, but if you follow that simple advice, you’ll have nothing to worry about.
Stevia is a great choice for sweetening foods and beverages.
It’s natural, it’s extremely sweet (so you don’t need to use much), it contains no calories, and if consumed at reasonable levels, appears to have no adverse health effects.
There’s even evidence that regular consumption can benefit your health, and especially if you have high blood pressure or blood sugar levels.
What’s your take on stevia? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- JM, G. (2003). Stevioside. Phytochemistry, 64(5), 913–921. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9422(03)00426-6
- GM, W. (2007). Re: Analysis of genotoxic potentiality of stevioside by comet assay. Food and Chemical Toxicology : An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 45(12), 2597–2598. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.FCT.2007.06.033
- M, S., U, V., U, M., & D, B. (1993). Mutagenicity and human chromosomal effect of stevioside, a sweetener from Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni. Environmental Health Perspectives, 101 Suppl 3(Suppl 3), 53–56. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP.93101S353
- Lack of mutagenicity of stevioside and steviol in Salmonella typhimurium TA 98 and TA 100 - PubMed. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9347659/
- T, T., H, R., G, M., Y, Y., & T, H. (2002). Mutagenicity of steviol and its oxidative derivatives in Salmonella typhimurium TM677. Chemical & Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 50(7), 1007–1010. https://doi.org/10.1248/CPB.50.1007
- M, M., K, M., Y, K., Y, O., T, N., Y, K., M, S., M, H., T, N., K, Y., M, I., & T, S. (1996). Evaluation of the genotoxicity of stevioside and steviol using six in vitro and one in vivo mutagenicity assays. Mutagenesis, 11(6), 573–579. https://doi.org/10.1093/MUTAGE/11.6.573
- Kanokporn Saenphet, Salika Aritajat, Supap Saenphet, Jeeradej Manosroi, & Aranya Manosroi. (n.d.). Safety evaluation of aqueous extracts from Aegle marmelos and Stevia rebaudiana on reproduction of female rats - PubMed. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17547081/
- RM, O.-F., OA, U., CA, M., & LB, V. (1989). Chronic administration of aqueous extract of Stevia rebaudiana (Bert.) Bertoni in rats: endocrine effects. General Pharmacology, 20(2), 187–191. https://doi.org/10.1016/0306-3623(89)90013-X
- MS, M. (1999). Effects of chronic administration of Stevia rebaudiana on fertility in rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 67(2), 157–161. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0378-8741(99)00081-1
- LA, B., M, P., G, B., S, B., JT, J., N, J., & V, R. (2008). Apparent lack of pharmacological effect of steviol glycosides used as sweeteners in humans. A pilot study of repeated exposures in some normotensive and hypotensive individuals and in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology : RTP, 51(1), 37–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.YRTPH.2008.02.006
- MH, H., P, C., YM, S., JC, L., TH, L., TY, H., B, T., MS, C., PF, K., & YJ, C. (2003). Efficacy and tolerability of oral stevioside in patients with mild essential hypertension: a two-year, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Clinical Therapeutics, 25(11), 2797–2808. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0149-2918(03)80334-X
- JM, G. (2003). Stevioside. Phytochemistry, 64(5), 913–921. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9422(03)00426-6
- L, X., B, C., X, E., S, R., W, Y., S, H., & H, Z. (1992). Chronic oral toxicity and carcinogenicity study of stevioside in rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology : An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 30(11), 957–965. https://doi.org/10.1016/0278-6915(92)90181-J
- V, Y., & S, B. (1991). Effect of stevioside on growth and reproduction. Human Reproduction (Oxford, England), 6(1), 158–165. https://doi.org/10.1093/OXFORDJOURNALS.HUMREP.A137251
- [Subchronic oral toxicity study of stevioside in F344 rats] - PubMed. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1364404/
- Cardello, H. M. A. B., Da Silva, M. A. P. A., & Damasio, M. H. (1999). Measurement of the relative sweetness of stevia extract, aspartame and cyclamate/saccharin blend as compared to sucrose at different concentrations. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 1999 54:2, 54(2), 119–129. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008134420339
- Anton, S. D., Martin, C. K., Han, H., Coulon, S., Cefalu, W. T., Geiselman, P., & Williamson, D. A. (2010). Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite, 55(1), 37. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.APPET.2010.03.009
- Y, J., Y, P., PR, R., L, T., M, G., L, C., SM, F., & P, Y. (2016). A Sucrose-Enriched Diet Promotes Tumorigenesis in Mammary Gland in Part through the 12-Lipoxygenase Pathway. Cancer Research, 76(1), 24–29. https://doi.org/10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-14-3432
- Basu, S., Yoffe, P., Hills, N., & Lustig, R. H. (2013). The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data. PLOS ONE, 8(2), e57873. https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0057873
- Morenga, L. Te, Mallard, S., & Mann, J. (2013). Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies. BMJ, 346(7891). https://doi.org/10.1136/BMJ.E7492
- Murphy, S. P., & Johnson, R. K. (2003). The scientific basis of recent US guidance on sugars intake. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(4), 827S-833S. https://doi.org/10.1093/AJCN/78.4.827S
- Kuhnle, G. G., Tasevska, N., Lentjes, M. A., Griffin, J. L., Sims, M. A., Richardson, L., Aspinall, S. M., Mulligan, A. A., Luben, R. N., & Khaw, K.-T. (2015). Association between sucrose intake and risk of overweight and obesity in a prospective sub-cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer in Norfolk (EPIC-Norfolk). Public Health Nutrition, 18(15), 2815–2824. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980015000300
- RD, M., & WW, C. (2009). Effects of food form and timing of ingestion on appetite and energy intake in lean young adults and in young adults with obesity. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(3), 430–437. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JADA.2008.11.031
- ES, F., & WH, D. (2013). Trends in energy intake among adults in the United States: findings from NHANES. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 97(4), 848–853. https://doi.org/10.3945/AJCN.112.052662
- A, D., & CD, R. (2014). Consumption of added sugars among US children and adults by food purchase location and food source. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(3), 901–907. https://doi.org/10.3945/AJCN.114.089458