5 Stevia Side Effects Food Advertisers Don’t Tell You

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Written By

Lauryn

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Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Stevia Plant

Does stevia have side effects?  The “healthy” sugar alternative may not be as righteous as food marketers and advertisers have made it out to be…

Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the stevia plant in nature. However, most commercial forms of stevia sold in grocery stores and in food products are not real stevia at all.

They are a highly refined extract that’s been super-processed with toxic chemicals, and stevia is no more natural than Aspartame, Splenda, or Equal. Stevia triggers side effects like GI upset, bacterial overgrowth, brain fog and malabsorption.

Why Stevia & Artificial Sweeteners Became Popular

Everyone knows (too much) sugar is “bad” for us.

Stevia Sugar Alternative

The maximum suggested dose of added sugar for humans is about 25 grams per day; however, the average American consumes at least 3 times the recommended amount of sugar every day and 3 pounds of sugar every week (a huge contrast from the 10 pounds Americans consumed every year in 1900)!

Most of America’s sugar consumption is not in the form of candy bars or ice cream either. Instead, it’s hidden in packaged and processed foods— from deli meat and sausage to crackers, pasta, cereals, bars, protein powders, protein bars, peanut butter, sports drinks and yogurt.

Side effects from this excess sugar consumption include:

The solution? Sugar free alternatives and artificial sweeteners to the rescue!

After all, sugar-free alternatives are obviously the healthier alternative, right? Not quite.

Artificial Sweeteners: Artificially “Healthy”

Many synthesized artificial sweeteners–like Equal, Splenda and Sweet n’ Low–are NOT actually healthy either  (In fact, many of them are worse than sugar). (1, 2, 3)

Common side effects from artificial sweeteners include:

  • Nausea
  • Digestive Distress (Constipation, bloating, stomach pain)
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Blurred Vision
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Overeating
  • Weight Gain or Weight Retention
  • Spiked Cortisol Levels & Insulin
  • Inflammatory conditions, like cancer, diabetes, and tumor formation

Contrary to popular belief, even “natural sweeteners” like stevia may not be all they are cracked up to be… 

Stevia 101: What it Is

Stevia is an herb that comes from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. This contains no calories and is naturally 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar (Magnuson, 2016).

China is the largest source of stevia, accounting for 80-percent of the world’s supply, and it has been used as a natural sweetener for centuries in other parts of the world like Paraguay, Brazil, Japan, and South America.

Stevia Flowers

Stevia was first introduced as a sweetener to grocery store shelves in America in the early 1990’s, and as more consumers began moving towards “natural ingredients,” the demand for plant-based “healthier” sweeteners like Stevia have increased.

In fact, it’s sales have grown so popular that it now accounts for approximately 30% (at least 1 in 4) products that are artificially sweetened on sales, and is leading artificial sweetener of choice for low-calorie soft drinks, juices, and carbonated drinks. (Grand Market Research, 2016 ).  Stevia sweeteners are found in Truvia®, Pure Via®, Stevia Extract in the Raw®, SPLENDA® Naturals Stevia Sweetener, SweetLeaf® and Enliten®, as well as other retail products sold under store brand names.

However, although they are popularly marketed as “healthy”, it doesn’t necessarily mean all forms of stevia are good for you.

5 Stevia Side Effects

Here are 5 stevia side effects and food truths that most food advertisers won’t tell you about.

#1. Stevia is a Processed Food (And we all know what processed foods do for our health)

The forms of stevia that most Americans consume today are not the same stevia as the natural herb grown for centuries. For one, whole stevia leaves and crude leaf extracts are not permitted to be sold as sweeteners in the U.S. because there is not enough toxicological information on these products by the FDA (they have other areas to spend their research dollars). Thus, we are already stuck with a more processed version.

Most commercially sweetened stevia yogurts, beverages and other foods contain only about 2 to 4% of actual true natural stevia leaf component (stevia rebaudiana).

The other 96 to 98%? An artificially synthesized sugar-like product—perhaps less offensive than other sweeteners (like Splenda and Equal), but all the same, still processed.

#2. Stevia is Not Necessarily “Natural”

Even though the FDA technically calls stevia natural on any food label, it’s important to remember that stevia sweeteners are processed by extracting steviol glycosides from the leaves of this plant.

The FDA’s own definition of the word “natural” does not include the way a food is processed. In other words, “natural,” means nothing at all.

FDA Natural Definition:

The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.  However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.  

Did you get that? Food production and processing are not included in the “natural” definition; so basically all foods are “natural” to some degree.

That Hershey’s candy bar? Natural chocolate.

Ritz peanut butter crackers? Natural peanuts and wheat (before processing).

Ben & Jerry’s? Natural dairy.

You get the picture.

That said, adverse side effects from it seem to be very small nowadays. Prior to 2008, it was banned as a sweetener by the FDA based on early toxicity studies in rats (often using whole-leaf stevia or crude extracts), that suggested that stevia may cause reproductive and kidney problems (Melis et al, 1999; Planas & Kuc, 1968; Melis, 1995). But more recent studies using purified extracts (like the type in food products) have largely failed to find those or other significant adverse effects from stevia alone (Brusick, 2008; Momtazi-Borojeni et al, 2017).

Outside of the U.S., a vast majority of worldwide regulatory agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives have also affirmed the safety of high-purity stevia extracts and approved their use in food (Hint: If it’s okay with Europe and Canada, it’s okay for us—as most European and Canadian health regulations are much stricter than the U.S.).

#3. Not All Forms of Stevia Are Equal

If you get an “aftertaste” from stevia, more than likely, it’s because you’re eating the cheaper version of it.

It’s additives contain steviol glycosides that are responsible for their sweet taste.

Stevia additives can have just one type of steviol glycoside or a proprietary blend of several. Ideally, for the purest taste, sweetness and health benefits, less is more—one type of steviol glycoside vs. multiple. 

The more purified and more concentrated the less bitter and sweeter it is. Unfortunately, most commercial products are made with multiple, less purified steviol glycosides, bringing along with them a lingering aftertaste.

Recommendation: BioPure Stevia Extract is a delicious pure stevia to keep on your shelf 

#4. Stevia May Disrupt Healthy Gut Bacteria

One study (Deinina et al, 2014) found that stevia may have negative effects on beneficial bacteria. Researchers tested six different strains of Lactobacillus reuteri, a healthy bacteria naturally found in human gut flora and a majority of dietary probiotic supplements. Stevia inhibited the growth of all 6 strains tested—some reduced by nearly two-fold. This may very well have happened because stevia is metabolized primarily by Bacteroides species (not Lactobacilli) Another study found stevia altered dopamine production—your reward chemicals—in the gut, pointing to a perturbed gut microbiota that craves more fake sugar (Nettleton et al, 2019).

Why this matters? By trying to eat “healthier,” you may actually disrupt gut bacteria that actually makes you healthier.

On the flip side, PureCircle, a stevia company, has reported that the purity of stevia may matter more for the gut microbiota than the debate over stevia vs. no stevia—asserting pure stevia may be better for the gut microbiota others. In their research in both adults and children who consumed their additive and filler-free version of stevia, they found that gut bacteria remained comparable in the presence and absence of these stevia ingredients over the 72-hour metabolic incubation period. While this is a private company, their study was submitted for peer review (Pure Circle, 2019).

#5. Stevia Additives May Cause Bloating, Gas & Upset Stomach

Many commercial forms of Stevia (like Truvia and Stevia In The Raw) include other additives like sugars (dextrose, maltodextrin) and natural flavors that can trigger side effects like gas, upset stomach, and gastrointestinal problems in some people.

In other words: Other additives and fillers (not necessarily stevia itself) in commercial sweeteners may be the bigger problem behind gut imbalances, and consequently metabolic issues, blood sugar disturbances, unwanted weight gain, and diet failure (Thaiss et al, 2016; Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2017; Suez et al, 2014).

Although a little dirt never hurt, when we regularly consume inflammatory processed foods, like (fake) versions of stevia, our body can only take so much. Intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) and dysbiosis happens when we consume food-like substances and additives our body doesn’t recognize as food. (Lerner & Matthias, 2015 ) Even low levels of additives may modify the composition and function of gut microbiota and trigger inflammation (Hmcirova et al, 2019). 

The Bottom Line

Real stevia (the leaves found in nature) are not sold in most stores; it is an herb you can either grow or find online here. Most versions of stevia we eat today, found in products on grocery store shelves (protein shakes, bars, sweets) are not the real (pure) thing; and are often combined with other additives, fillers, chemicals and fake food products.

That said, stevia is widely considered to be safe when used as a sweetener, and no health concerns have been raised during its 10-plus years in wide circulation in the U.S. But as with any sugar substitute, it’s wise not overdo it. It’s one thing to use a packet or two in your coffee or sip it in your protein powder, but another to be consuming such foods all day long. After all, many products containing stevia or other sugar substitutes are still highly processed “junk” foods, such as soft drinks, candy, and ice cream, that aren’t priority nutrients for you to begin with.

For other (less processed) sweeteners, check out this hit list, and while you’re at it, you can even try making your own (pure) stevia (see my recipe below).

5 Healthy Sweetener Alternatives Beyond Stevia (Paleo, Keto, AIP-friendly)

Move about stevia, here are 5 notable healthy sweetener alternatives to check out.

Dr. Klinghardt likes to add BioPure’s Stevia tincture to each cup of our loose leaf Cistus incanus tea. The whole leaf…

Posted by BioPure on Thursday, January 30, 2020

#1 Additive-Free Pure Stevia

Like BioPure Stevia Extract or Micro-ingredients Stevia.

#2. Monk Fruit

Monk fruit, also known as lo han guo or Swingle fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii), is a small round fruit native to southern China. Similarly, look for additive and filler free versions. Like this one or this one. 

#3. Raw Organic Honey

Sure, it has some sugar, but as a real whole food, raw honey also boasts antibacterial and immune boosting properties. My fave treat: Manuka honey. Treat: Mix 1 teaspoon with 1 teaspoon of coconut oil, ghee or sunflower seed butter for a simple after-dinner, pre-bed treat that actually promotes healthy blood glucose levels and sounder sleep. 

#4. Natural Seasonings (Cinnamon, Vanilla, Pumpkin Pie Spice, Carob/Cacao, Coconut Flakes)

Natural flavors that are actually natural (not fake). Use cinnamon, vanilla, cacao nibs and beyond to add a little “sugar and spice and everything nice” (without actually adding sugar).

#5. Fruit

Fruit is nature’s candy. Use fruit in place of sweeteners in recipes like paleo muffins and pancakes. Or as a simple snack or treat—such as stewed cinnamon pears, an apple with sunflower seed butter, or frozen berries or cherries and coconut cream.

Recipe: Homemade Stevia

Last but not least, get crafty in the kitchen with your own homemade stevia.

Ingredients

Leaves from stevia plant/homegrown stevia (about 1/2 cup)

1 cup filtered water

Directions

  1. Wash leaves in clean filtered water.
  2. Discard stems.
  3. Once your leaves are dry, grind them in a food processor or coffee grinder to make pure stevia.

For Liquid Stevia: Dissolve 1/4 cup pure homegrown stevia powder with 1 cup hot filtered water. Stir and leave out at room temperature for 24 hours. After 24 hours strain the stevia out of the liquid and store the liquid stevia in the refrigerator.
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2 thoughts on “5 Stevia Side Effects Food Advertisers Don’t Tell You

  1. Have you known many people who experience digestive issues from stevia? I use 1 packet or less of Stevia in the raw in my morning coffee (which is only half coffee and half Dandy Blend dandelion/chicory herbal coffee) and have noticed major stomach stuff lately. Wondering how common those symptoms are, or if that was causing me trouble if that makes me incredibly sensitive? Thanks!

    1. I see what you are experiencing quite frequently in my practice and have too experienced it myself. There are so many forms of the substance (amounts) in various foods and of course the packets as well, but your experience is not foreign at all! May be interesting to see how you feel by taking it out for 5-7 days…Let me know :)

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