Is stevia natural?

Fresh stevia leaves and bowl with sugar

Stevia is a non-caloric sweetener that is relatively new on the international market. It originates in the leaves of a South American plant. Because of that it’s marketed as a “100% natural” alternative to other non-caloric sweeteners.

There’s been some discussion about how natural it really is, as it’s extracted from the leaves using different solvents and goes through further chemical processes before it emerges as a white sweet powder.

Personally I’m no fan of sweeteners, regardless of their origin. They tend to maintain an addiction to sweets. I’ve never seen Stevia as “natural”. It’s purified from leaves and thus it’s no more natural than snorting cocaine (which is also purified from leaves).

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125 comments

  1. Stevia is as artificial as butter - it is a processed form of a natural ingredient, who cares? I have never seen any evidence linking Stevia to health issues.
  2. Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD Team Diet Doctor
    Chris,
    And in what way is that different from cocaine? Someone addicted to cocaine might make the exact same argument.
  3. Arshad, Stuttgart
    Many unnatural (hey what is unnatural? Processed, right? :-) things can be very good. Think about life-saving medicines.
    But the question is, whether Stevia is good for health or not.

    Another point is difference between modern processed food and paleo age processed food & also in the processing time, possibility of food contamination.

  4. Butter is not artificial! You can make it yourself from buttermilk in your kitchen if you want! Try making stevia powder from stevia leaves!

    I also believe that any forms of sweeteners is not only totally unnecessary, but that they can also maintain your desire for sweets. Cravings can be hard to resist when you first eliminate sugars and artificial sweeteners like splenda, but it usually gets easier within a couple of weeks. There is nothing like finally feeling free from food!

  5. Andy
    The word "natural" has absolutely no consequence or meaning on food packaging. Why do we always assume that "natural" means "good for you"? Hurricanes, tsunamis and volcanoes are all 100% natural, but none of them are the least bit good for you.
  6. Well... for one cocaine is an opioid. It would be hard to make the "same argument" as cocaine is not a food, and it's not possible to get addicted to stevia. Find a single RCT that finds addictive or narcotic qualities in Stevia. This is a false equivalency.
  7. Arshad, Stuttgart
    I have doubt, whether sweet taste makes craving.
    I thought, it is glucose, which makes craving. Some days ago, I read a study on athletes. Sorry, can't provide link now.
  8. Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD Team Diet Doctor
    Chris,

    it's not possible to get addicted to stevia

    I think you're wrong. It's possible to get addicted to lots of things (sex, gambling, fast food). Abnormal sweetness is almost certainly one of them.

  9. OK - again this is a false equivalency. Being addicted to a behavior is not equivalent to being chemically addicted to a substance, so what is your point? That's its possible to develop mental illness? OK... so why does Stevia enter the picture as something particularly noteworthy?
  10. Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD Team Diet Doctor
    Chris,

    Being addicted to a behavior is not equivalent to being chemically addicted to a substance, so what is your point?

    The point is that for the addicted person the experience is about the same. And it's all about the same reward circuitry in the brain.

  11. Arshad, Stuttgart
    If the "reward circuitry in the brain" is that important, then I am afraid, Stephan Guyenet is right?
  12. Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD Team Diet Doctor
    Arshad,
    Partly right, certainly. But the reward theory of weight gain coexists happily with the insulin theory of weight gain (my talk at the AHS was about this), so regression to simplistic calorie counting is still silly.

    Getting addicted to high carb junk food makes you eat more of it. This raises your insulin and causes weight gain.

  13. Sorry but there's no science to back up the claims here. Lifting weights makes those same "reward circuitry" go off too - should we stop lifting weights? By reward circuitry I presume you are talking about the nucleus accumbens, SP and hypothalamus?

    Let's say that you were somehow addicted to Stevia - which as we have established and which you have failed to substantiate, there is no evidence to support. But let's say you were somehow addicted. SO what? Stevia has 0 calories, no effect on blood sugar and has a number of health benefits associated with it.

    It's absurd to equate stevia, a naturally occuring herb of no dietary significance, with "high carb junk food"

  14. Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD Team Diet Doctor
    Chris,
    The problem is that using Stevia maintains an addiction to sweets.

    Possibly this abnormally sweet taste and its effect in the brain also messes up body weight regulation / hunger / cravings / insulin in other more discreet ways but that's speculative.

    Reply: #114
  15. Megan
    I use three drops of stevia a day - it allows me to have a very slight sweet taste to my food. other people might add berries, the occasional apple, sweet potato or squash to their diet for that sweetness. I choose not to have fruit or starches at all.

    I have no concerns about having stevia in my diet. As a previous sugar addict I get no cravings at all from the stevia I have. I have not headed down a slippery slope into my previous addiction from having something sweet in my diet.

    Sweetness comes from all kinds of foods, natural and not. if we are to question the use of stevia - we must question the use of berries in a low carb diet. Surely they are also adding a sweet taste? And additional carbs.

  16. I agree with Megan.The central argument here is not coherent. "Sweet" is not an evil, and this is especially true when there are no calories or glycemic effect, as with Stevia. Sugar... is not equivalent to Stevia.
  17. How realistic is it that "everybody" will give up sweets ??? In a perfect world maybe... then erythritol and stevia is better than table sugar, because of no blood sugar rise...

    Try getting people giving up all forms of sweets...? it will never happen.. berries is sweet.. lots of LCHF foods are sweet.. coconut fluor has a sweet taste..

    Personally I have these few times - maybe a couple of times a mounth, i dont consider myself addicted.. I find stevia and erytritol dont trigger a binge in the way other sweets do.. normal table sugar make me sick, stevia and erythritol dont affect me at all..

  18. I stopped using sweeteners when I learned that they are used to fatten pigs. http://j.mp/QNxjOr
  19. When I stopped eating sugary foods, I found that my sense of sweetness quickly re-calibrated so that I suddenly realised a lot more things were sweet. For example, a glass of milk tastes much sweeter to me now than it did when I was regularly eating sweets and cakes. Because of this regulation of "sweet sense", I would almost say that my "experience of sweetness" is as enjoyable now as it was before.

    Anyone who's having doubts about artificial sweeteners (perhaps I should say non-caloric sweeteners instead) should really read this paper that Stephan Guyenet recently highlighted on his blog:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22683548

    Also, Guyenet provides a great summary:

    http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.ie/2012/06/new-study-demonstrates-t...

    These researchers basically created "knockout" mice, which had been genetically modified to prevent them tasting the sweetness of certain sugars, then showed that these mice did not get fat drinking water sweetened with those sugars. However, when something else was added to the water to make it palatable, the mice started to be fattened by the calories in the same sugar! The sugar only made them fat when they could taste the sweetness!

    I have to say that this paper blew my mind. It's such an incredibly ingenious study. I could not help feeling more skeptical about artificial sweeteners after reading it.

    Reply: #91
  20. Sorry, a small correction to what I wrote above: The researchers actually added a little "fat emulsion" to the sugar water to make it palatable to the mice that couldn't taste the sweetness. Once the water was palatable to the mice (but not actually sweet, since I'm assume fat emulsion would not have that effect on the taste), it made them obese.

    Without palatability, the calories in the sugar did not cause obesity. However, combined with the palatability of the fat emulsion, the sugar calories did cause obesity.

  21. Maje Scott
    I grow stevia and dry the leaves before they flower. I don't think drying leaves and soaking them in boiling water to extract its sweetness is highly processed. I'm not sure what the process of making the stevia into a white powder is but I find making your own, not difficult as one suggested.
  22. PK
    Tobacco and Toadstools are very natural.

    If I can get my kids to eat ice cream made from eggs, grass-fed butter, coconut oil, cacao powder, and stevia, what's it to ya? Think that's a crap ton better than the other choices we're faced with on a daily basis?

  23. Stevia is natural having zero calories in it. It goes through some processing but you cannot compare stevia with other artificial sweeteners.
  24. Ralph, Cleethorpes, UK
    'Shall I compare thee' to sugar obtained from cane or beet then? Think I'll give them all a miss.

    Whilst I take people's point about not everything natural being good, I think we've determined the foods that are beneficial after 2 million years of eating them, thanks. Your defence of processed 'food' appears to illustrate beautifully your vested interest.

  25. Justin B
    I only use Sweet Leaf Stevia liquid drops due to the lack of processing. They only use water in the extraction process. I first heard about this from David Getoff. If you're worried about the extraction process, then you should definitely use something like this. All natural things can be bastardized and processed when big companies that don't care get involved. That's when you look for a product that isn't that way, not blame the entire plant/animal.

    http://www.sweetleaf.com/about/fact-sheet

  26. I think comparing stevia to sugar because it's sweet is like comparing coconut oil to vaseline because they are both oily.

    And comparing stevia to cocaine because they are both extracted from leaves is far fetched. A lot of things are extracted from plants.

  27. Bee
    Aglaee, just a correction: you can make butter in your kitchen but not from buttermilk. You make it from cream (put it in a jar and shake shake shake!). The liquid that is left over is buttermilk, a slightly tangy low-fat milk.

    The problem with stevia, in my opinion, is it tastes bad. I'd much rather go for honey or maple from time to time to get a sweet flavour.

  28. David
    For me it's not about calories or blood sugar, it's about processing. I also don't need sweetness in my food. If I want to ad a little sweetness I use tried stevia leaves or honey from a local farmer. But thats a rare occasion. I used to be into sweets eating sometimes five chocolate bars a day and I don't have a problem with strong cravings anymore, of course I'm not anybody and can't speak for anyone else. I can eat fruits and other fructose containing foods now without a problem. Stevia is not a problem for me but I do not use it in it's denatured powder form, for me this is no longer natural. I don't know if it's dangerous or not, and there seems to be no evidence right now, but there is no need to use this form of denatured sweeteners for me.
  29. Ash
    Hey Doc.

    So are you saying that stevia is infact bad for you? or does it just make you want to eat other sweet things that raise your bloodsugar.

    i have given up eating all starches and no sugar, but i sometimes enjoy whipped cream with some stevia (1 tsp).

    i seeme to have platoed at 130 kg (was 140) (im 193 cm tall) do you think stevia could be the cause?

    any suggestions on how to loose more weight?

  30. Bo
    Chris Krause, Doc

    Today's brainscanning-techology; for example MRI and CT gives us a view in to the brain to see what happens with a heroin or alcoholic addict using the drug . Would it be a stretch to say that the same tehcnology can be used to see if sugar or stevia lights up the same area of the brain in a similar way as herion or alcohol does. If it does I argue that the two also is addictive.

  31. Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, MD Team Diet Doctor
    Bo,
    Experiments like that have already been done, with fascinating results. Watch this:
    http://www.dietdoctor.com/must-see-toxic-sugar-on-60-minutes
  32. I've always considered artificial sweeteners of all kinds just a slippery slope back into the kinds of low-carb junk food which derailed the Atkins movement. Some people can deal with it better than others, but some people soon find they can't live without that sweet hit. And for those trying to go low-carb, any kind of sweet tooth is a disaster waiting to happen.

    If you need sweets, eat fruit. If you find you can't defeat your cravings, realise that many fats also have a "sweet" taste and will fill you up, unlike sugar. Take a delicious spoonful of unrefined coconut oil, for example.

    Maybe three times a year I make chocolate with coconut oil in the freezer, so I do keep a bottle of stevia. However I use it mostly to mask the bitter taste of the cocoa rather than for sweetness. That's the only thing I use it for.

  33. Ahsan
    Doc, I've noticed you haven't linked to any studies. While I'm all for avoiding sweeteners, artificial, natural or anywhere in between, if we are to hold our non-paleo, non-LCHF friends accountable for their claims about fats and cholesterol, we must also follow the same standard with regards to our claims about sweeteners, or anything else.
  34. Mlecter
    I've never heard about Stevia, but I've got a question... What about agave syrup? It has very low GI. Do you think is healthy? Probably it should be another topic, but if someone know something, please tell me.
  35. Bo
    Doc,
    Dopamin respons was the same as for drugs and alcohol, interresting. My addiction is beer. 50% sucrose in the maltose in beer I belive.
  36. Elenor
    The thing I always notice about "Stevia" sweeteners is -- when you read the ingredients list -- they seem to nearly all have OTHER (chemical) sweeteners too -- Ace-K, sucralose, some form of sugar alcohol(s), and so on. It's not: "I bought some dried and ground-up leaves"; it's "here's another mix of various sweet chemicals."
  37. Stacy in USA
    My grandmother used to tell me to not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. In a perfect world probably no one would use artificial sweeteners. In my mind, if some people can consume some sweeteners with no adverse health effects then fine by them.

    I drink a diet soda about once per week. I occasionally bake with Stevia.

  38. J
    I think the occasional use of artificial sweeteners really helps me maintain LCHF. Before I started using stevia to make homemade ice cream, my craving for ice cream was much, much stronger. Getting my fix for a little sweetness and not feeling like I've totally messed up keeps me going along happily on LCHF without intense, distracting cravings that previously made it impossible for me to stick with it.
  39. ## Copy-paste from the FB thread:

    I actually don't have a big problem with Stevia, it's probably better than the other artificial sweeteners and some studies have shown a benefit for blood pressure and glycemic control.

    That being said, I understand Andreas's point. The mere sweetness of the compound can have part in maintaining an addiction for sweets.

    Here is a good paper that discusses exactly that:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892765/

    Artificial sweeteners are associated with increased weight gain and disease, in the context of a western, non-calorie controlled diet (many epidemological studies say so). There isn't any reason to think that Stevia is any different, despite being "natural."

    If you are going to have a sweetener of some sort, Stevia may be your best bet. But the best option would probably be no sweetener at all.

  40. Margaret O
    Dr. Diet, you seem to be getting a number of concepts confused in regard to addiction.

    Sex or gambling fall in to the category of "process addictions". They function to alter mood states by increasing certain hormone levels in the body (ex., adrenaline, endorphines). Behaviour is repeated to reinstate the mood alteration. The addiction is to the biochemically induced mind state as attained through the preferred process.

    Substance addictions also deal with altered mind state. There is some clinical evidence that individuals who become addicted may experience heightened euphoria as a result of ingesting substances. The euphoric mind state is a powerful reward, and the substance required to achieve it has a profound impact on the body and brain trying to metabolize it.

    Food "addictions" are a different class altogether. My own belief is that there is no "addiction" in the usual sense of the word, but there is a powerful hedonistic reward that tends to produce repetition of the behaviour. There is a new theory of obesity on the horizon that suggests basal ganglia functioning is impacted by certain preferred foods, which may bring us somewhat closer to the more classic understanding of addictions, but I don't believe we are there yet.

    The presence of addiction in subjects who have suffered early abuse or neglect, or later trauma has been well established in the literature. The escape from a painful mood state is one of the operators behind many addictions. I do believe we see this in SOME obese subjects, but it is not a factor in most subjects, in my opinion.

    If you wanted to refer to fast foods and sweeteners as highly rewarding and therefore heavily favouring behavioural repetition, you'd be accurate. To say this is an addiction is really pushing the concept.

    There is a certain powerlessness over the compulsion associated with addiction that is not present in the face of a Big Mac or a spoon full of stevia. Addictions require a multi-modal therapeutic response; simple avoidance would not be effective, while avoiding sweeteners or fast foods may well be sufficient. It is important to understand the difference.

  41. Diane
    I don't like the bitter after taste taste of stevia. Since going low carb my tastes have adjusted and I can now taste the natural sweetness of many foods such as almonds and coconuts, tomatoes and strawberries. I use coconut flour to bake with and it has a lovely mild sweetness. Occasionally I have a small amount of very dark chocolate sweetened with honey for a treat. I had a small taste of some regular milk recently and it tasted too sweet! Before low carb I would not have noticed that milk was sweet!
  42. Arshad, Stuttgart
    Sucrose activates human taste pathways differently from artificial sweetener

    Main paper:
    http://koso.ucsd.edu/~martin/FrankSucrosefMRI2007.pdf

    blog post / Dr. Briffa
    http://www.drbriffa.com/2010/01/14/artificial-sweeteners-fail-to-fool...

  43. Arshad, Stuttgart
    From Dr. Briffa:
    According to the New Scientist piece, the research, conducted by Paul Smeets at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, gave individuals a soft drink sweetened either with sugar or a blend of aritificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, cyclamate and acesulfame potassium). Both drinks activated the brain, but only the one containing sugar caused part of the brain associated with reward (the caudate nucleus) to ‘light up’.
  44. DoragonMama
    I am very disappointed in this article, it isn't based on any real science, it seems to be just a rant about a sweetener for the sake of ranting against sweeteners.

    If stevia is processed with chemicals then you need to rethink your position on chemicals, not all are bad. Like vanilla extracts stevia is extracted with food grade alcohol, are you saying we shouldn't eat extracts?

    And what about organic stevia, how is that bad? Where is the danger in having an organic sweetener that doesn't have any downside.

    I think you are confusing different types of addiction, as others have pointed out. I do not have an addiction to sweets, I have a preference for a bit of sweetener in my coffee and other foods. That doesn't mean I am addicted.

    I do in fact grow stevia on my patio, and I do in fact use it right off the plant in salads and tea. There are instructions on the internet on how to make extracts at home using food grade alcohol OR water as well.

    Again, I am very disappointed in this article, I expect better from you and until now I have always gotten it.

    Reply: #87
  45. Jaclyn
    Although I do believe Doc has a very valid point, I myself use stevia. Not in excess, but certainly in my coffee in the morning, and seeing as I am from a large family, in things like coconut flour cake with buttercream frosting. My mother and I have actually spoken many times, wondering how stevia effects our brains considering the fact that it is very, very sweet tasting. But in the end, it doesn't show negative effects on heath, and we're already nazi enough about the things we put into our bodies. There has to come a point were you live. If consuming stevia in my coffee every morning is the worst thing I out into my body, then hell, I'm doing something right. Now, there are better stevia brands than others.. For instance, I would never, ever use truvia.... Truvia is a chemicals laden cocktail. I use the sweet leaf brand, it's a bit more expensive but the only ingredients are stevia leaf extract, and inulin soluble fiber. A heck of a lot better than what you'll find on the regular shelves at stores.
  46. Diane
    I'm always suspicious of any highly processed food, like stevia or protein powder, that has people so attached to them they'll argue about it on the internet. Real food is much better for you.
  47. Zepp
    I do think its safe to eat.. but if one do project the Paleo thougts about it.. then one should eat the leavs.. not the procesed substances!

    I do have some blends of Stevia and Erytrhiol in my kitchen moste for visitors and occasionaly for some desserts.. perticuly for vipped cream, with organic vanilla powder!

    Not so much for my own sake, more for my mothers. how others take a lot of sugar.. and I dont want that to happen in my house!!

  48. DoragonMama
    @Diane How is stevia not natural? I can go now and pick a few leaves from my plants and eat them.

    We are not talking about a chemical concocted in a lab somewhere, this is a plant that you can eat raw. It is not highly processed, it is distilled the same way that flavoring extracts are made.

    @Jaclyn I also don't use any mixes of stevia, just pure stevia, the only time I tasted bitterness was with a mixed version, pure stevia never tastes bitter to me.

  49. Anu
    This is a really weird argument and quite disappointing. There's no point arguing whether stevia is natural or not -- whether it is or isn't has no bearing on whether it's good for you or whether it's possible to be addicted to it. Lots of things that are "natural" are quite bad for you in even their unprocessed form -- think of poisonous mushrooms or sap. Cocaine doesn't need to be unnatural to be bad for you. There's this weird attachment to the idea that natural = good for you, which is just simply not true. If you want to make a case against stevia, it's perfectly possible to make an argument against eating stevia without resorting to stevia is unnatural, hence bad for you, when there are plenty of foods that are good for you that that involve quite a bit more processing than stevia -- blue cheese anyone? The natural/iunnatural thing is a distraction.
  50. I agree with many posters above that the question about stevia shouldn't be whether it's natural or not, but whether it's good for us vs. harmful to our bodies, regardless of it's origin. And there's mounting evidence that sweetened foods, regardless of how they are sweetened, may trigger deleterious physiological responses that we may wish to avoid. So maybe we shouldn't be adding ANY sweeteners, natural or not. Eating foods that are naturally sweet like berries (in moderation) seems to me to be another thing entirely.

    On another note, I have a question about Stevia: I've tried it in many different forms, and it ALWAYS tastes horribly bitter to me. I can taste the sweetness, but there's also always an unpleasant bitterness to it. For me that makes it easy, I simply don't eat anything with Stevia in it.

    It seems like we evolved with some protective mechanisms, including the ability to taste that bitterness and take it as a warning sign. And it seems like we should stay away from things that are that unpleasantly bitter (some bitter, i.e. in kale or tea, is not unpleasant) because they may be harmful to us.

    I know not everyone perceives that bitterness in stevia, but many of us do. Is it really a "healthy" thing for us to ingest something that our senses are warning us to stay away from?

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