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Stevia: The Sugar Imposter

by Lindsey Rosenblatt

photography courtesy of Olivia Sokol

Having a sweet treat or a sugary tasting drink labeled “sugar-free” may be one of the most exciting finds, especially when attempting to please a sweet tooth on a diet. But, when taking a spoonful of Halo Top, a sip of Diet Coke or a bite of a Quest bar… how is it still so sweet? Impossible it may seem, but the nutrition facts stating “>1g sugar” are true. Meet stevia: the natural miracle behind the magic.

Stevia, derived from the plant Stevia Rebaudiana, originated in Paraguay and Brazil and has been cultivated as a sugar substitute for hundreds of years. In terms of safety, the FDA approves high-purity steviol glycosides — which is extracted from the plants — as a sugar substitute within the market.

“However, stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not considered GRAS [or generally recognized as safe] and do not have FDA approval for use in food,” according to the FDA.

Stevia is popular because it lacks a universally accepted “bad guy” in food: calories. With a satisfying, sweet taste and zero calories, stevia has opened the door for many opportunities to enjoy desserts without the guilt.

This sounds too good to be true — how healthy is stevia for the human body?

Recent studies have shown that stevia has no effects on insulin levels or blood glucose. Therefore, it serves as a popular substitute for people with diabetes, allowing them to have a wider variety of foods to consume and enjoy.

Celebrity Chef Devin Alexander, author and chef behind NBC’s Biggest Loser cookbooks and new cookbook You Can Have It!, which is sponsored by the ADA (American Diabetes Association), focuses her time and energy on creating recipes that are healthy yet decadent for someone watching their blood sugar or weight.

“I love using [stevia] in everything from sauces to desserts, as a sweetener for my iced tea, etc.,” Alexander said in an interview. “But, I think the biggest thing I’d say is that some people feel there is an aftertaste.”

Studies show that stevia is 200-300 times sweeter than normal sucrose (sugar), so it is important to use it in small amounts. Otherwise, there is a risk of the food or drink becoming too sweet.

“[The problem is] if you overuse it or don’t add other ingredients to compliment it,” Alexander said. “I make pumpkin cheesecakes with [stevia and] they taste like actual pumpkin cheesecake, in part, because of the pumpkin spice.”

The pumpkin cheesecake contains only six grams of sugar and 110 calories per serving. In this case, stevia works perfectly for those with diabetes, allowing them to enjoy the pumpkin spice craze without the fear of raising blood sugar levels.

Stevia is also helpful in controlling weight gain, and there is some evidence that stevia may be able to help reduce blood pressure and risk of pancreatic cancer.

Many studies have shown that stevia consumption does not have any negative side effects, including a study conducted in 2010 that tested individual’s responses to consuming foods with stevia.

“Participants did not compensate by eating more at either their lunch or dinner meal and reported similar levels of satiety when they consumed lower calorie preloads containing…than when they consumed higher calorie preloads containing sucrose,” according to the 2010 study.

However, stevia studies have been inconsistent. Some studies have shown that stevia can cause overeating or hurt metabolism. Stevia needs to be further investigated in order for a definitive conclusion to be formed.

There are also some downsides to be aware of. Many stevia products also contain sugar alcohols, which can cause bloating, cramps, nausea or diarrhea for those who are sensitive to sugar alcohol. There is also some concern that zero calorie sweeteners can cause metabolic disorders, a potential cause of diabetes.

Although there is some skepticism pertaining to stevia, it is approved by the FDA and as of now, considered to be safe. So, if avoiding extra calories from regular sugar sounds appealing, skip the sugary pumpkin spice lattes and bags of Halloween candy this fall and try stevia-sweetened desserts like Halo Top’s seasonal Pumpkin Pie flavor or Smart Sweets Gummy Bears. Enjoy an all-natural, zero calorie, sugar fix.

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