Stevia, it’s one of those foods that has a lot of people confused. It is marketed as a healthy sweetener because it is an intensely sweet, natural plant. Due to this intense sweetness, a smaller amount is required to achieve the desired effect and this is what gives the perceived health benefit. With the sweetening effect of 200-300 x’s the strength of regular granulated sugar, is it a good thing?
Native to South America stevia has been used for over a 1,000 years. A shrubby plant that looks similar to mint. Stevia grows in arid, sandy soils and is part of the same family as sunflowers.
Here’s what most people don’t consider when trying to make better choices around sweeteners. Choices that on the surface seem like they will provide greater health.
Stevia starts as a green leaf and is generally consumed as a clear liquid or white powder. Stevia itself was deemed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as being non-carcinogenic with no detrimental impacts to one’s health or on diabetic and heart patients.(1) In fact, almost any plant consumed in its natural state has some benefit if not toxic or poisonous.
To extract the sweetness out of the stevia plant on mass scale it must go through several processes. Processes that include alcohols and solvents and this is where things get confusing and glossed over when it comes our health.
To refine the sweetness out of the plant a slurry of hot water and erythritol is used and is the first step in extraction. Erythritol is a natural substance in fermented foods and some fruits such as grapes. In the food manufacturing industry it is a sugar alcohol made from corn and considered a carrier solvent by the WHO. Also called tetrahydroxybutane or 1,2,3,4-butanetetrol you want to avoid it because of the negative impact it can have on your gut health.
Erythritol is what you are mostly getting when stevia is in its liquid form. Because the sweetness of this carrier solvent is similar to that of a high fructose corn syrup at about 60-80 times the sweetness of sugar it makes the end product more usable and familiar for the average consumer.
When stevia is processed into crystallized or granular form erythritol is not fully extracted out and likely to contribute to poor or compromised gut health. This can be a concern for anyone with conditions such as GERD or Crohn’s but even those with type II diabetes can eventually be negatively affected.
With no calories, erythritol helps keep the calorie count low on stevia products. It is often sought out for that reason and the preferred solution for those wanting to lose weight or avoid blood sugar spikes. The problem is you are trading one set of problems for potentially much bigger, more complicated ones over time.
Although the World Health Organization does allow the use of erythritol they do not advise the consumption due to the high use of GMO corn to produce it. Furthermore, they note the consumption of sugar alcohols are known to be linked to digestive issues in small amounts and can lead to side effects like diarrhea and upset stomachs. When greater amounts are consumed symptoms tend to include headaches, gas, cramping, etc.
These minor symptoms are often precursors to larger, more damaging health problems developing. The most common and first condition usually being “leaky gut”.
Leaky gut is when intestinal permeability allows substances such as bacteria, incompletely digested proteins, fats and waste to transfer from the digestive tract into the bloodstream without being first circulated through and filtered by the liver.
Foreign bodies in our bloodstream triggers an autoimmune reaction. Reactions can vary from food sensitivities, joint pain, skin rashes or a whole host of other symptoms. It is chronic inflammation that worsens into disorders and eventually full blown disease including cardiovascular disease. This adds serious complications for those initially just wanting to lose a couple of pounds or still want to consume sweets even though they have diabetes.
A secondary concern with commercially refined stevia and the erythritol used is in either crystallized or liquid form, it can not be metabolized by your body.(2) Often leading to over eating and/or weight gain, it’s the body’s natural reaction to empty calories. Again, not the desired result when trying to lose a few pounds.
To refine stevia, like in most extraction processes, a centrifuge is likely used along with the carrier solvents to break down the plant cellulose releasing the “juice”. Typically the solvents are some form of methanol, chlorine, titanium dioxide (to make foods white) and possibly others depending on what product is being made.
Let’s look a little deeper at this – We’ll look at methanol. Another liquid alcohol used in the refining process and labelled as a toxic solvent in shipping and handling. It also has its own health implications.
Through the refining process methanol is eventually neutralized but residual methanol can and often does remain(3) in the end product and that is where the concern lays. Symptoms you may experience are similar to those experienced from erythritol and include headache, diarrhea, cramping, dizziness among others.
Remember, when our foods are processed manufacturers do not have to reveal the substances they use because it is considered a process not an additive. These processes are further protected under propitiatory patents and claims. Health Canada does have regulations in place to prevent extreme excess amounts to remain in our foods but it is only tested in single product situations per serving.
An average bottle of low or no calorie beverage is more than 2 servings. Add other foods that may have gone through similar refining processes to your daily diet and when would you guess the 200ppm allowable for stevia has been exceeded? (5)
Most of the patents for erythritol are held by companies such as Coca-Cola. The largest user of this sugar alcohol it is a main ingredient in low and no-calorie drinks including “healthy” juice beverages.
In Canada, McNeil Nutritionals is the biggest producer. McNeil Nutritionals is the makers of Splenda (also known as sucralose). A no calorie sweetener found to cause a variety of harmful biological effects in the body according to recent research.(4)
When consumed sucralose causes an overall reduction of gut microflora. Specifically, beneficial bacteria like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria which are disproportionately affected compared to pathogenic bacteria or what is referred to as “bad” bacteria. This reduction is not only connected with “leaky gut” but the growth of “bad” bacteria is often the source of food cravings.
When food cravings are rooted in chemical and hormonal reactions, people often feel they can’t control their eating. This is why many experience addiction behaviour with sweetened drinks such as colas, energy drinks and other highly refined food items. Again, not helpful when trying to lose weight or are trying to maintain health with diabetes.
Natural stevia or stevia that has not been industrially refined has many great qualities and can be a good way to sweeten our foods. Lower blood pressure, reduced blood sugars, and better oral health are just a few benefits that can be related to its natural form.
If you don’t have a green thumb or are not inclined to keeping a house plant or two I suggest using stevia powder.
The powder should resemble tea, dark green in colour and ground into a fine powder. When tasted it should be intensely sweet. A couple hundred times sweeter than refined white sugar.
If using the fresh plant, remove the leaves and dry in a dehydrator.
Or if you don’t have a dehydrator lay them out in a cool dry location such as your countertop for 2-3 days until crumbly when rubbed between your fingers.
Making a liquid sweetener for drinks or baking is even easier. Pick 3-4 leaves off your stevia plant and steep in hot water with a little vodka or white rum for 30 minutes or until alcohol has burned off.
Pour mixture into a glass jar and tightly seal. Store for 36 hours on your countertop then strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Keep refrigerated until needed.