Stevia comes from a South American herb that has been used by the indigenous people of Brazil and Paraguay for thousands of years as a sweetener and as a folk remedy for diabetes. It is hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar, but in its original form it has a bitter aftertaste that some people find objectionable. Many of the new stevia products that are now available, such as Truvia, Nuva, and PureVia, use only the sweet-tasting part of the leaf combined with erythritol as a bulking agent. Stevia is also available as a liquid and as a blend with fructooligosaccharide (FOS), a sweet fiber that comes from chicory root or Jerusalem artichokes, and other sweeteners.
Stevia was banned for use in foods in the US in the early 1990s and could only be sold as a dietary supplement. As a result of intense lobbying from the soft drink industry, rebaudioside-A, an extract of stevia, was granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in 2008. A GRAS designation allows it to be sold as a food without undergoing the normal tests for safety. Some countries still restrict or ban the sale of stevia.
A study published in Denmark in 2000 demonstrated that stevia has the ability to stimulate insulin secretion by acting on the beta cells in the pancreas. The researchers concluded that it may have potential as an anti-hyperglycemic agent in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. 1
Stevia can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in some people and it may increase insulin sensitivity and delay the absorption of glucose from the intestines. As a result, it can change the effectiveness of diabetes medications and interfere with the timing of injected insulin, making it essential for those with diabetes to consult a doctor before using it. It is also said to lower blood pressure, so those on medication for hypertension should seek medical advice about using stevia.
Mayo Clinic nutritionist, Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., had this to say: "...It is probably safe in moderate doses. However, until we have more research, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should probably avoid using stevia. Similarly, people taking diabetes or blood pressure drugs should use stevia with caution because of the risk that it might cause hypoglycemia or hypotension when combined with these drugs."2
I've noticed one more thing about stevia from my personal experience that I haven't seen mentioned. It has always been known that some people love stevia and some think it tastes bitter. The new reb-A extracts were supposed to solve that problem by using only the sweet compounds and leaving out the bitter ones. When I tried some of the new products, I found that they didn't taste bitter, but they also didn't taste sweet. It dawned on me that some of us can't taste the sweet components and that's why it tasted bitter in the first place. That would explain what happened a while back when the owner of a company that makes stevia-sweetened cookies sent me some samples. (I can't remember the name—and wouldn't tell you if I did, as I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from trying them or hurt the company's business.) I really wanted to like them, but they were horrible, like a mouthful of straw. The comments posted on Amazon by buyers showed that some people loved the cookies, but some reacted the same way I did.
Many sugar substitutes that contain stevia are blended with erythritol, lo han guo, sucralose, or other sweeteners, and those taste fine to me, but not quite sweet enough, as would be expected if I can taste all the sweeteners except the stevia. I still use them, but I either use a bit more or kick up the sweetness by adding a little sucralose. I'm not sure how many people are like me in regard to stevia. It is especially strange because I am usually something of a "super-taster." I can't eat cilantro, for example, because it has a strong, nasty flavor to me that other people can't taste at all. Clearly, there's just no accounting for tastes.
1 Jeppesen, P.B.; Gregersen, S.; Poulsen, C.R.; Hermansen, K.; "Stevioside acts directly on pancreatic beta cells to secrete insulin: actions independent of cyclic adenosine monophosphate and adenosine triphospate-sensitive K+-channel activity," Metabolism 2000 Feb; 49(2):208-14. Abstract at:
Stevia photo by Ethel Aardvark.
(C) 2011, Judy Barnes Baker