A lot of things—good and bad—have been said about artificial sweeteners. Depending on who you ask, they are either a cancer-causing synthetic monstrosity or a viable alliterative that can cure a growing obesity epidemic. Stevia, which comes from a natural source, has been hailed as the perfect solution that can fix both of these issues, but are those claims correct? Is it really as safe and effective as claimed? Or are we being spoon-fed lies?
We don’t sell stevia here on Shelgo Tea, nor do we stock any alternatives. We’re approaching this from a neutral perspective to try and give you an honest opinion, but it’s still an opinion and not a definitive truth.
Stevia and the Stevia Plant
Stevia comes from the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana), which grows in South America and is said to have been used by the Guarani people (perhaps best known for their love of guarana, a naturally caffeinated drink we wrote about here) for more than 1500 years. They used the leaves as a natural sweetener for herbal teas and food and even consumed them whole.
The compounds that caused this sweet taste were isolated in the 1930s, allowing them to be used in concentrated form, and in the 1970s they began to be used in Japan.
Stevia is very sweet. Depending on the strength of the extract, it can be anywhere from 30 to over 150 times sweeter than sugar. It can also be turned into a powder extract so that it looks like sugar. However, this is where the similarities end.
Stevia extracts can have an off-putting aftertaste (one that is said to taste bitter like raw liquorice root), it does not ferment like sugar does, it contains zero calories, and it doesn’t provide the instant and short-lived sweetness that sugar does (stevia’s sweetness has a slower onset and lingers for longer on the palette).
Is Stevia Natural?
This is a grey area, and it all comes down to how you define “natural”. On the one hand, stevia is a plant and stevia sweeteners are extracted from that plant, but that extraction process may not fit with what the average consumer considers to be “natural”.
Most consumers seem to be under the assumption that stevia is a dried leaf or basic alcohol/water extraction that is added to food and drink. But it actually undergoes a strict extraction and isolation process so that only two compounds, rebaudioside and stevioside, remain. In many ways, this is similar to the heavy processing that goes into creating vanilla flavouring, and it’s also similar to the process that supplies the soft drinks industry with powdered caffeine.
To a degree, it is still natural, even if the additional processes are not, but it’s far from what the marketing would have you believe. It’s also not that far removed from the processes that give us artificial flavourings.
Stevia Dangers: Long-Term Use
The real question here is: does stevia cause any long-term issues?
Stevia extracts have been consumed in Japan for nearly half a century at this point, and the plant itself has been consumed for many hundreds of years before that. It could be argued that if there were a serious issue, we would know about it by now, but that’s not entirely true. There simply hasn’t been any conclusive research looking at long-term consumption, and it could be many years or even decades before we get this research.
In the meantime, there is an element of risk and uncertainty regarding stevia consumption, but the same could be said for many of the additives that make it into our food. The good news is that short-term issues are rare. Some of the issues it can cause include gastrointestinal discomfort, sickness, and diarrhoea, although this is only true for individuals who are sensitive to stevia or consume large amounts.
Stevia in Japan
The Japanese are the biggest consumers of stevia in the world, and they are also one of the oldest. They banned the use of artificial sweeteners several decades ago and pretty much switched over to stevia for all of their needs.
They believe it’s safe and is the best sweetener on the market, and they have conducted a number of studies to back up these claims. However, the relatively short history of this product means that there is a notable lack of long-term studies and no one, the Japanese included, can say with certainty that it won’t cause harm in the long-term.
It is possible to be allergic to stevia, in which case you may experience anything from mild rashes and discomfort to severe allergic reactions. However, a report in 2015 noted that the incidences of sweetener allergies is very low.
Has Anyone Banned the Use of Stevia?
A number of chemicals and additives are used freely in some countries but have been banned in others. Stevia, however, is pretty much regulated for use all over the world. In the European Union, it has been approved for use as a food additive since 2011, but for the most part, companies in the United Kingdom still have a tendency to use artificial sweeteners like Sucralose.
Stevia: Good or Bad
If there is one takeaway from this guide, it’s that stevia divides opinions and will continue to divide opinions for years to come. On the one hand, a wealth of data proves it does not cause short-term issues and is widely tolerated. On the other hand, there isn’t a great deal of research looking at its long-term effects and this, in addition to the “unnatural” ways that stevia is produced, has led to a great deal of concern.
Arguably the best thing you can do is avoid artificial sweeteners altogether and keep your natural sugar intake to a minimum. If you have a sweet tooth and can’t say no to a can of fizzy pop but don’t want the calories, then just try to limit your consumption. It’s unlikely that a little stevia every now and then will hurt you, and the same can be said for most other sweeteners.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on the regulations and the advice that authorities provide. It’s easy to dismiss them as not always having our best interests at heart, but if there are any major changes that consumers need to know about, then they’ll be the first to act on them.