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.