Health & Wellness

What We Know About the Sugar Substitute Stevia

It’s better for you than a diet full of sugary soda. How much better is not a certainty


By Katrina Caruso


While everyone knows that North Americans drink too much soda and thereby put their health at risk, they don’t seem to want to give the stuff up. Artificial sweeteners have grown in popularity because they contain zero calories and are low in sugars. And they can add sweetness without affecting sugar levels in the body, which is particularly important for people with diabetes.

Stevia, a sugar replacement made from a South American plant, is generally considered to be safe for consumption. Introduced in 2008, the sweetener can now be found in soda, ice cream, yogourt, and other foods marketed as low sugar or low fat.

The American Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food advocacy group, was initially critical of stevia; however, in a 2014 report, CSPI listed stevia as one of the safest artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, on the other hand, topped the list as the one to avoid, as it has been shown to cause cancer in mice.

The World Health Organization considers stevia to be safe, citing studies that show that it doesn’t cause cancer in rodents or affect human blood pressure. However, for the most part, these studies have been funded by the sweetener industry. Some researchers and advocacy groups argue that more research is needed. For example, not much is yet known about stevia’s effects on the metabolism.

Another uncertainty is stevia’s ability to reduce caloric intake: in one study, 30 men’s food intake was monitored. In most cases, they compensated for the calories they didn’t get from sugar by eating more.

The long-term effects of stevia are not yet known, either. So, it might be a good idea to be careful with your consumption of artificial sweeteners, and if you’re trying to cut down on your sugar consumption, consider replacing processed sugars with natural sugars such as those in fruit.

Photo: iStock/krblokhin.