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I’m finally writing this post! Lots of you have asked me questions about this sweetener, usually amounting to something like this: “Is stevia bad?” I believe stevia can be either good or bad, depending on how it’s used. Let’s look at the benefits it provides, when it’s safe, and also some cautions in regard to its use.
Common Concerns about Stevia
- My favorite concern about stevia is that the sweet taste on one’s tongue not followed by the expected ingestion of glucose can cause an insulin confusion. I love the idea that our sense of taste is connected to our body’s preparatory action! But here’s how Chris Kresser responds,
…stevia has actually been used traditionally as a treatment for diabetics and may actually improve blood sugar control. In one study, participants were given a dose of either sucrose or stevia before lunch. Compared with the sucrose preload, the stevia preload resulted in lower blood sugar after the meal and a lower insulin load, even compared with aspartame. Also, even though the stevia provided fewer calories than the sucrose, participants didn’t compensate by consuming more calories at lunch. Another small study with 16 volunteers found that 5-gram doses of stevia extract every 6 hours for three days improved glucose tolerance. In insulin-resistant and diabetic rats, stevia improved insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and liver and kidney function. (source)
While glucose confusion is a real issue with artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame), stevia is not artificial if processed/prepared in a traditional manner. Even refined, white, powdered stevia did not show adverse glucose confusion in studies.
I have my own additional line of defense, too, for this potential. I like to combine stevia with one other sweetener. In a cup of tea, for instance, I put a bit of honey and a bit of stevia. I do this in baked goods, too, and often in my cookbook. This allows me to use less of the sweetener that I’m trying to limit, in this case honey, but to still achieve the level of sweetness that I prefer. My body is not faked out. It does receive glucose after tasting sweet.
I ran this method by my doctor who is very familiar with the insulin confusion that applies to artificial sweeteners. He felt it a good and safe solution.
- Many on healing diets think stevia is not safe due to the dextrose used. I have never purchased stevia with dextrose in it. My favorite varieties of stevia are the actual herb steeped in alchohol, like this one (alcohol base) or this one (water base), or a product made by NuNuturals called Reb99, that is 99.99% pure. It has no ingredients besides stevia, has a great flavor, and is extremely potent; so very little is used. If you can handle a few drops of alcohol (which evaporates in heated foods), which most of us can, I think the alcohol-based tincture is the best option. It’s prepared just as healing herbs have been prepared for millennia. I do not, by the way, like the glycerine-based, alcohol-free stevias that are marketed for kids. Personally, at that point, I prefer Reb99 or the water based liquid.
- You may have heard that stevia is linked by some native cultures with infertility? Historically it was even used in South America as a contraceptive. However, the studies that followed this discovery to unearth its accuracy have been mixed and more recent, more reliable studies have refuted the earlier, dubious ones. (source) This correlation is still one to be wise to, if you’re trying to conceive. But there is not substantial evidence to firmly support the connection.
When stevia is looked at by the medical and scientific community, its historic record and its current aid to many patients show it to be more hero than villain. PubMed says this:
Although Stevia can be helpful to anyone, there are certain groups who are more likely to benefit from its remarkable sweetening potential. These include diabetic patients, those interested in decreasing caloric intake, and children. Stevia is a small perennial shrub that has been used for centuries as a bio-sweetener and for other medicinal uses such as to lower blood sugar. (source)
What about those of you who are completely sweets-free: no honey, no fruit, just stevia? Is this healthy? It really depends who you are and at what phase of your healing. I have completely recovered from pathogen overgrowth and one short stage of my process included eliminating all fruit, all sweet veggies, honey, and other foods that can feed candida. During this time I aggressively killed pathogens and rebuilt the lining of my gut. Here’s one how-to post on the subject.
DON’T HARM YOUR THYROID
While this short-term stage was effective for me, it is not advisable for most patients to go so low-carb for extended periods of time. Our bodies require some dietary sugars and the metabolic balance is thrown off when it is deprived. (Pathogens can even wait out these periods of deprivation until sugars return; so be sure you have a plan on how to kill them and get through their biofilms, if you go low-carb/sugar-free for a time.)
My cautionary view of stevia relates to a position that is easy to get into: one where we want to limit our sugar intake or lose weight, so we reduce our carbs to almost nothing and increase our fat and protein. While I don’t do well with lots of carbs, having the right balance for your body actually prevents metabolic disregulation. Everyone’s different; but we need to each find the right amount of carbohydrates to fit our body’s needs. Stevia should not be used to get a sweet taste without any carbs. That’s cheating, and our body knows it.
Specifically, our thyroid is taxed if we don’t have enough insulin. Insulin is what helps convert inactive T4 to active T3. (source) Insulin levels are usually low in those with low-carb diets. So we’re endangering ourselves and our thyroid health by maintaining a low-carb diet long term. Again, everyone’s different. But we need to be careful. I started the GAPS Diet without Hashimoto’s, and I’m leaving the GAPS Diet with it. Maybe it’s a coincidence. But maybe it’s not. I also started GAPS without adrenal fatigue and acquired it along the way. The adrenals, too, are affected:
The main hormone that gets dysregulated in adrenal fatigue is cortisol, and cortisol has been shown to increase on a low carb diet. This means that a low carb diet is a potential adrenal stressor in susceptible individuals. (source)
I’m not saying that GAPS alone is going to give you Hashimoto’s or adrenal fatigue. But do be careful on low-carb diets such as GAPS to get plenty of winter squash and beets. I was GAPS and Low-FODMAP for over a year. During this time I didn’t eat winter squash or beets because they left me bloated. So many tricky decisions! Use caution in your choices. If you have to pull out certain carbs, which ones can you safely leave in? Or, for most people, limit the period of time you spend doing a low-carb diet.
WHEN, WHERE, AND HOW TO USE STEVIA
My conclusion is this: Use stevia in conjunction with other sweeteners. My body doesn’t do great with lots of honey or maple syrup. So in recipes I reduce the amount of glucose-containing sweeteners and then add enough stevia, to taste, to get the recipe’s sweetness to where it should be. I also make sure to eat protein and fat with my sweets.
If I put maple syrup (and butter) on my high-protein pancakes, I may put stevia in my tea. With honey-sweetened homemade hot chocolate, I’m also eating protein (two eggs and sausage) and my gentle-carb, prebiotic baked good (like one that uses cassava flour) may be sweetened with stevia. That’s my version of moderation and balance. You may have your own version. The key is this: don’t use stevia and omit all carbs. Also, balance your meals: protein, fat, and carbs should all be present in a ratio that works well for your body.
Do I like stevia? I actually do. I think it’s great. I like picking fresh leaves from the garden and putting them in my tea cup. I like using the tincture in my high-protein waffle batter, (since I plan to top the waffle with butter and syrup). I also use the dextrose-free powder in my baked goods, occasionally, using honey or maple syrup, too. I never taste the bitter others mention, maybe because I use less than some folks use. And I do think NuNaturals brand has the best flavor. It’s the only stevia I use.
What about the powdered green herb? Yes, it’s pure. But I don’t like the taste. I have it on hand because I once bought it. But I rarely use it. Too strong, too licorice-y.