Stevia: Health Benefits and Hidden Side Effects

by Lisa Breitenwischer

May 19, 2017

Stevia: Health Benefits and Hidden Side Effects

After recommending stevia to my clients for years, I found new research exposing the dark side of stevia, that has changed my opinion.

Stevia. What is it?

Stevia is a plant that contains natural, calorie-free sweetness found in it’s leaves, and can be used as a sugar substitute to sweeten desserts, fruit, or drinks. It was touted as a better, natural choice over artificial sweeteners, like saccharin as it didn’t affect insulin or blood glucose response, and has the potential of treating endocrine diseases including hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

The Dark Side of Stevia

Weight Gain and Increase in Body Fat – In 2010, researchers evaluated the effect of saccharin, on blood sugar and metabolism in rats compared to glucose/table sugar. Then they compared stevia’s impact to saccharin and table sugar. Results showed increased food intake, body weight gain, and an increase in body fat in the animals fed food and beverages with stevia-just like saccharin. The glucose/table sugar treated group did not have the same effect.

The effect was thought in part due to the intense sweet taste which caused a “Pavlovian” response and led to the effect of increased food intake with diminished metabolism. Pavlovian response refers to a “hi-jacking” response that your body becomes habitually conditioned to want and perform.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms – A 2014 study grabbed the attention of many as research results concluded that consumption of artificial, low or no-calorie sweeteners, alters the composition and function of the gut flora and led to an increased risk of glucose intolerance.

There were additional studies done in 2019 and 2020 related to stevia and gut health. The report found diminished levels of various beneficial bacteria: Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.

Adverse Effect On The Kidney – Stevia can increase the rate at which water and electrolytes are expelled from the body through urine. Since the kidney is responsible for the creation and filtration of urine, some researchers are of the opinion that consuming stevia over the long term may damage the organ. (However, a study carried out in 2013 found that cyst growth in kidney cells was reduced after a period of stevia use.)

Lowered Dopamine – Stevia also lowered dopamine-reward system activity in the brain. Studies show us that diminished dopamine activity in the brain of obese humans leads to decreased physical activity.

Bottom Line

Non-caloric sweeteners either artificial (sucralose) or natural (stevia) hide several risks to their consumers.

They are responsible for:

    1. Increasing glycemia (concentration of sugar or glucose in the blood) in spite of their lack of calories.
    2. Increasing liver enzymes due to intestinal flora reshaping. (inflammation of the liver)
    3. Elevation of urea and creatinine levels. (kidney issues)
    4. Reduction of the anti-inflammatory cytokines and elevation of the pro-inflammatory cytokines secretion. (increase inflammation, depression, cardiovascular disease) recommends not using sucralose or stevia and decreasing the used daily dose of sucrose instead.

Lisa’s Recommendation

In summary, stevia* is a low-calorie sweetener that has health benefits, but not without some possible side effects. More research needs to be done, but if you have a pre-existing health condition like diabetes, heart disease, or gut issues, stop using stevia, along with any other artificial sweeteners. Instead, you could try Monk fruit. This fruit has zero calories and has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. There have been no reports of negative effects, to date. Monk fruit is considered safe, even for diabetics. I’ve experimented with the brand Lakanto Maple-flavored syrup and found it to be a delicious substitute for regular syrup. Some other Monk fruit brands to look for: Nativo, Sweetleaf, Health Garden, and Better Body Foods. You can find these products in some grocery stores and all of them online.

*The FDA approved only the purified form of stevia, called stevioside, as safe to use. Products considered safe contain words in their ingredient list such as stevia extract or Stevia rebaudiana. If you see whole stevia leaves or crude stevia extracts at your local natural foods store, don’t buy them. The FDA says it doesn’t have enough information about their potential impact on your health, including kidney and cardiovascular problems.

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