My fitness buddy Teresa has a great question the other day about Stevia.  I thought I’d summarize some Stevia research with you minus some of the pesky scientific names to make it less boring.

What is Stevia?

Stevia comes from the leaves of a tropical and subtropical plant. The leaves have a sweet, sometimes bitter or licorice-like taste. Sweet compounds are extracted from the dried leaf and isolated by crystallization or filtration techniques.

How is it used? Until recently, Stevia was primarily available in powdered form in health food stores and was marketed as a supplement. However, most people purchased Stevia to use as a non-caloric, non-chemical sweetener that does not raise blood glucose levels and can be heated without altering its flavor. Stevia reportedly has some medicinal uses, such as treating hypertension or obesity, but the evidence supporting medicinal claims is still in early stages.

Is Stevia safe?

The million dollar question. Lay people generally consider stevia preferable to table sugar (sucrose) or chemical sweeteners like Equal (aspartame), Splenda (Sucralose) or Sweet n’ Low (Saccharin). However, some lab tests show that the sweet compounds extracted from the Stevia leaves can breakdown into products that may be harmful to the liver. The protocols for this study have been criticized, though. In 1991, the FDA banned stevia and labeled it as an “unsafe food additive” because data did not show it was safe. This violated the FDA’s own guidelines which permit natural substances used since before 1958 to be generally recognized as safe (or GRAS). In 1995, the FDA reversed this stance and permitted stevia to be used as a supplement, though not marketed as a food additive. Currently, Coca Cola and Pepsi have developed Truvia and PureVia, respectively, which use stevia derivatives. The FDA has not objected to GRAS status for these products.

Should you switch to Stevia?

I would avoid the chemical concoctions cooked up by Coke and Pepsi. They do not have your health at heart, so just stay away from anything they offer you. Don’t take candy from strangers is a good rule of thumb to live by. If you have health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes or are under the care of a doctor, I would strongly encourage you to check with him to see if stevia could interact with your medications or worsen your condition. It may be natural, but remember that some people can’t even eat grapefruits because of drug interactions. Better safe than sorry. If you are in good health, stevia may be a good option for you. Just keep in mind the risks outlined above and remember that some countries (like Singapore, Hong Kong and Norway) have banned Stevia. On the other hand, it’s perfectly fine in other countries.

What are your thoughts? Do you use Stevia or other sugar substitutes?