Many people have been asking me questions about stevia (Steviana), assuming it must be healthy since it’s an herb, right? My views on the topic are quite divided. Even though it’s a plant, we don’t use it as a whole plant, like the Native Indians did hundreds of years ago.
The Stevia products you can find on the shelf today, concentrate a particular chemical that can be found in stevia, and is known for its sweet taste. Stevia is a natural sweetener that is about 200-300 as sweet as sugar. Stevia rebaudiana is the botanical name of the South American shrub, and its leaves are used to produce the wide variety of stevia sweetener brands available on our shelves today.
The Guarani Indians of Paraguay have used stevia for hundreds of years, mostly to sweeten their herbal mate tea. The leaf extract has also been used in Japan, China, South Korea and Brazil to sweeten foods in small to moderate amounts.
The introduction of stevia to the US market has been a little different. At first, the FDA placed a ban on the substance. Some say this was an action taken to protect the interest of the sugar industry, as there was no research in place to support this kind of harsh action.
In December of 2008, the FDA finally accepted to add stevia to its GRAS list (Generally Recognised As Safe) and now Americans can buy the product which is freely distributed in the market as a sweetener.
Chemical Composition of Stevia:
The stevia plant is chemically composed of two main sweetening chemicals namely;
Rebaudioside A (also called Reb A or Rebiana),
These are the two main steviol glycosides found in the stevia herb, they’re high potency sweeteners that are responsible for stevia’s sweet taste. They’re the basis for the stevia based sweeteners you can find on the shelf.
Effects on Blood Pressure:
In a 4 week study by Maki et al. (2008a), 1,000 mg of rebaudioside A did not significantly change the systolic and diastolic blood pressure, or the heart rate in patients with low-normal to normal blood pressure compared with a placebo.
Effects on Glucose metabolism:
In another 16 week study by Maki et al. (2008b), it was found that rebaudioside A did not affect glucose metabolism or resting blood pressure in type 2 diabetes patients. There was no hypoglycemia found when compared to the placebo, but there was a small yet significant increase in the Alanine Transaminase (ALT) levels in the rebaudioside A group. ALT is a key enzyme produced by the liver. Hence, further studies would be needed to ascertain the cause and any long term effects of the elevated ALT levels.
Effects on the Genes (Genotoxic effects):
Brusick et al. (2008) found 2 of 16 studies showing genotoxic activity for stevioside and 4 of 15 studies showing genotoxicity activity for steviol. Rebaudioside A was not found to cause mutations, chromosome damage or DNA strand breakage in many studies (Pezzuto et al, 1985; Nakajima 2000a; Nakajima 2000b; Sekihashi et al, 2002). Studies have not found stevioside to be carcinogenic in rats, but more studies are needed for rebaudioside A.
So, is it safe?
I believe that everything should be done in moderation. If you’re one of the many people that can’t live without stevia, know it’s ok to use it, but please make sure you do so in moderation. 1-2 packets a day should be ok, although the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) as indicated by WHO is 4 mg/kg of body weight, per day.
Some endocrinologists have cited that zero calorie sweeteners (natural or artificial) have the potential to increase your risk of gaining weight in the long term, because you fool your brain into thinking you are consuming a high sugar/calorie drink or food, only for it to sense that the blood sugar is still low.
As a result, the brain sends more signals to your stomach, telling it that you’re hungry. As far as the brain is concerned, you are starving it of essential fuel - glucose.
It’s much healthier to eat whole foods like fruits and sweet vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes to satisfy your sweet tooth naturally, without the accompanying sugar spikes and abrupt increases in insulin levels.
I invite you to watch the video below from Dr Vikki Petersen DC, CCN, a Chiropractor and a Clinical Nutritionist on why “zero calories” may actually cause you to gain weight.
Personally, I’d rather grow stevia in my garden (since Alhamdulillah it grows well in tropical climates), and use it as a whole food - the entire leaves, just like the Native Indians did. I’m sure it has a variety of other phytonutrients that would be beneficial, which would be lost in that bottle or packet of highly processed stevia being sold in the supermarket.
An important question to consider is what other additives have been used in the processed, liquid or powdered stevia that you’re using? Some brands use Erythritol and Grapefruit seed extract (GSE), and both substances aren’t safe for consumption.
I encourage you to always read food labels, and make sure you know what you’re putting inside your body. For example, I was given a pack/leaflet of the Steviana brand, and noticed the producers failed to list out the ingredients. I couldn’t find the ingredients on their website either. You’d have to depend on their word, that the product is made of pure stevia and nothing else.
Always look for pure stevia extracts with at least 90-95% pure extract, stay wary of any additives you see on the label.
Please leave your comments and questions below, and let us know how you use stevia in your home. May Allah guide us to the truth always, amin.