What Is Stevia?
Stevia is a sugar substitute made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant of South America. The leaves contain chemicals called steviol glycosides that have a highly concentrated sweet flavor.
Stevia is about 200 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar and is a non-nutritive sweetener, which means it has no carbohydrates, calories, or artificial ingredients.
You can find stevia in powder or liquid form in supermarkets and natural food stores in the baking goods or health food aisles. It comes in tabletop packets (usually green), liquid drops, dissolvable tablets, and spoonable products, as well as baking blends.
Among brand names, SweetLeaf is a sweetener made from stevia extract, and both Truvia and Pure Via are stevia-based. Some stores also have generic stevia products.
Stevia Health Benefits
Stevia can also be helpful for:
Diabetes. If you have diabetes, stevia can be a way to sweeten your yogurt or hot tea without adding carbohydrates and to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. But, some artificial sweeteners may not be as helpful if used in large amounts. We need more research on the benefits of stevia for diabetes.
A healthy weight management program. It may help you lose weight and lower your risk of obesity and related health conditions. But some studies have shown weight gain due to how the brain reacts to sweetness with signs to eat more. More studies are needed to confirm weight loss benefits.
A low-calorie or ketogenic diet. Stevia can be a good substitute for sugar because it only adds a few or no calories to your diet.
Stevia Side Effects
While raw stevia is not approved by the FDA for consumption, pure extracts are considered safe. The FDA approved only the highly purified steviol glycosides from stevia leaves as safe to use.
Products thought to be safe contain words in their ingredient list such as stevia extract or Stevia rebaudiana.
If you see whole stevia leaves or crude stevia extracts at your local natural foods store, don’t buy them. The FDA says it doesn’t have enough information about their potential impact on your health, including problems with your kidneys, heart, and blood vessels.
Stevia may also:
- Affect the healthy bacteria in your stomach, causing gas and bloating
- Raise heart attack and stroke risks, because it's often mixed with erythritol, which has been found to increase these risks
It's important to read food labels and know which type of sweetener or combination of sweeteners is included.
Cooking With Stevia
You can use stevia the way you would table sugar. To include it in some of your favorite foods and drinks, you can:
- Sprinkle it on. You can add some stevia to your cereal or use it in hot or cold drinks.
- Cook with it. It's best to check the package before you measure out sweetener, as each brand has its own sugar-to-stevia ratio. If you use too much, it can cause a bitter aftertaste.
- Use it for baking. Baking with stevia can be tricky. Because it doesn’t have the same chemical makeup as sugar, stevia won’t give cakes, cookies, and breads the right texture. Try experimenting with different amounts or extra ingredients, like adding whipped egg whites to a cake batter or extra baking powder and baking soda to a quick bread dough to help them rise.
Other Sugar Substitutes
Other artificial sweeteners besides stevia include monk fruit, acesulfame-K (Ace-K), saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose.
Monk fruit, also known as swingle fruit or luo han guo, is a small gourd that grows on vines. It comes from parts of Southeast Asia, including China and Thailand, and was named for its first cultivators – Buddhist monks in the 13th century. Because fresh monk fruit spoils quickly, it’s typically used in dried form.
As a sweetener, monk fruit comes in many forms, including a sugar-like powder and liquid extract. Because it has an extremely sweet flavor – 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar – monk fruit is often mixed with other ingredients for balance.
Like stevia, monk fruit is a low-calorie, non-nutritive sweetener. Its extract has no calories, carbohydrates, or sugar.
Some of its health benefits include:
- Less risk of obesity. Sweetening with it instead of sugar can help lower the chance of obesity.
- Healthier option for diabetes. It has no side effects, and it won’t impact blood sugar, so it can be a healthy option for people with diabetes.
- Antioxidant properties. Monk fruit has antioxidant properties, which help reduce your risk of conditions like heart disease and cancer.
Though monk fruit offers its fair share of benefits, it is not for everyone. Some people may not choose monk fruit as an alternative sweetener for several reasons, like:
- High cost. Monk fruit is expensive to grow and export. Because of this, it's much more costly than standard sugar.
- Inconvenience. Monk fruit is less common than sugar and can be harder to find when grocery shopping. Also, some people don’t like the process of learning how to bake or cook with monk fruit extract in place of sugar.
- Different taste. Though monk fruit provides a sweetness similar to sugar, it does taste different. You may not enjoy the taste, texture, or aftertaste of monk fruit, compared to sugar.
Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K, or Ace-K)
Acesulfame potassium is a man-made, no-calorie sweetener that's 200 times sweeter than sugar. You can find it in tabletop packets as Sunett or Sweet One, or in sugar-free gum, light juices, and light ice cream.
The FDA says that more than 90 studies support its safety.
You might know this sweetener by its brand names, Equal or NutraSweet. It’s a combination of two amino acids that provide sweetness with almost no calories.
Some people have reported that aspartame gives them headaches or dizziness or affects their moods, but studies haven't linked such symptoms to aspartame. The FDA states that aspartame is one of the most studied food additives.
If you have phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare metabolic disorder, you should avoid aspartame, because it contains phenylalanine. Any product containing aspartame will have a warning label about that.
This sweetener is between 200 and 700 times sweeter than table sugar and best known as Sweet’N Low.
In the 1970s, saccharin got a warning label after lab tests in rats suggested a possible link to bladder cancer. More than 30 studies of saccharin show results from rats do not apply to humans and saccharin is safe for consumption, according to the FDA. Food or drinks with saccharin no longer have a warning label.
Splenda, the brand name for sucralose, has a tag line that it’s “made from sugar” (which it is). But it’s 600 times sweeter than sugar.
The FDA says it reviewed more than 110 safety studies before approving sucralose as a general-purpose sweetener for foods. Because it's heat-stable, which means it keeps its sweetness even when used at high temperatures, you can use it for baking.
Xylitol and sorbitol are sugar alcohols made from plant products. They have fewer calories than sugar.
The FDA allows sugar alcohols as sugar substitutes. Other types of sugar alcohols include:
The sweetness of sugar alcohols varies from 25% to 100% as sweet as sugar. Sugar alcohols are slightly lower in calories than sugar and do not cause tooth decay or a sudden increase in blood glucose. They are typically used to sweeten sugar-free candies, cookies, and chewing gums.
If you have diabetes, be aware that sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and can still raise your blood sugar. They can also act like laxatives or have other digestive symptoms in some people.