The Science Behind Stevia
Even though the FDA officially deemed stevia to be a safe alternative to sugar in 2008 and categorized food grade stevia as "GRAS", which stands for "generally recognized as safe", this hasn't always been the case. For many decades, the FDA delayed their food safety approval of stevia, causing the stevia sweetener to be controversial within the health community. But was the FDA's original determination regarding the potential health hazards associated with stevia fair or unfounded? Let's take a look at the science, as well as the politics, behind stevia.
Stevia sweeteners are derived from the South American plant, Stevia Rebaudiana. This hearty plant is grown and harvested in the Peruvian region of South America where the natural climate and weather conditions are ideal due to the precise precipitation, sunlight, temperature, and ground conditions found there.
How is stevia produced?
While we can’t speak to other companies’ production processes, we can talk about ours! Sweetly Stevia’s extraction and production process is quite simple. Our stevia is extracted via a water extraction purification process that includes many steps. In order to cleanly extract steviol glycosides from the stevia plant leaf, the leaves are first dried then steeped in water (water extraction) after which they are put through a filtration process to remove any small leafy particles. Activated carbon is applied next to the leaves to remove organic residues before an ion exchange treatment is performed to remove minerals. Then to ensure the glycosides are concentrated, i.e. as sweet as can be, they are put through a process of resin adsorption / desorption. Finally, the glycosides that remain are spray-dried and the result is the sweet stevia extract that you buy in the health food store.
Stevia's effect on metabolism is virtually non-existent so long as the filtration and purification processes to create the extract do not include alcohols, chemicals, or artificial additives. When you eat a trusted stevia sweetener, like Sweetly Stevia, the steviol glycosides will not cause an increase in blood glucose levels and therefore will not spike an insulin response, which makes this sweetener ideal for diabetics and anyone who is aiming to keep their daily sugar intake low.
The science that explains why stevia has no impact on the metabolic system is centered on the body's use of glucose as well as an individual's unique gastrointestinal bacteria colonies. Let's take a look, shall we? Steviol, otherwise known as the structural core of steviol glycosides, attracts glycoside groups. These groups are what forms the sweet compounds of stevia that we eat. What's interesting about these glycoside groups is that while they are technically "glucose", the human body does not straightforwardly regard them as such. Instead, when steviol glycosides pass through the upper gastrointestinal tract, they are not broken down as glucose energy, but rather move onward fully intact. When steviol glycosides then reach the colon, the person's natural gut bacteria turn the sweetener into steviol by snipping off their glucose units. Pretty cool, right? From there, the steviol is absorbed into the portal vein, metabolized by the liver, and eliminated from the body by urination. Research and studies have proven that stevia does not accumulate in the body, nor do any components or by-products of stevia accumulate. While there is metabolic energy production when the colon ferments, or "snips", those glucose units, the actual energy production is so low that this aspect of metabolism technically provides zero calories.
Sounds great, right? It is! So, why then was stevia demonized as unsafe for so long prior to 2008?
Legend has it that...
...on a dark, moonless night in 1991, an eerie chill swept across the world. Bats screeched. Dogs howled with foreboding. All of humankind grew on edge with an irked, almost-indescribable apprehension. One individual in particular became plagued with heightened madness. Trapped in a deranged mental fog, this "anonymous" individual trailed through the back alleys of America unseen, only the clicks of his or her shoes against the sidewalk could be heard. These harrowing sounds were that of "anonymous" submitting a formal trade complaint to the US Food & Drug Administration against the sweetener, stevia, which stated in bold-faced type that this all-natural sweetener was--gasp!--unsafe. As the sobering sun dawned the following morning, the FDA--still bogged with the eerie spell of the night prior--read "anonymous's" complaint and, without a shred of research, issued an Import Alert, banning all stevia from entering the United States.
Was toxicological evidence cited in "anonymous's" formal trade complaint? No... But when has the essence of pure evil ever yielded to science, research, and evidence?
Forgive our use of heightened, dramatic satire, but the 1991 FDA ban on stevia was unresearched and unfounded. In response to the ban, supporters of stevia submitted documented proof of stevia's long, safe history of food-use in their effort to get the FDA to qualify stevia for a GRAS status, but the formal trade complaint submitted by "anonymous" held too much weight and it became illegal to import stevia from South America.
Major controversies surrounding stevia ensued. Even people in the health community were wary of stevia supplements, which at that time were allowed in the US if they met certain health supplement standards and came with clear warning labels. Imagine people with blood sugar level issues avoiding stevia supplements because of a nationwide ban that was scientifically unfounded! Many people who could have benefitted by adding stevia to their supplement regime missed out on documented health benefits.
The negative connotations of all stevia products, supplements included, snowballed until the forces of good finally interceded. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which was implemented in 1995, forced the FDA to allow stevia to be imported and marketed as a dietary supplement. While at this time, stevia was still banned as a sweetener and food additive, this Act secured a vital stronghold in the US government. Rumors and connotations in the average American mind, however, were not so easily eradicated. In fact, the FDA's policy to classify stevia as safe when strictly used as a supplement only added to the controversy because it reinforced the potential harmfulness of its use as a food product.
One battle won does not equal a war lost, nor do many battles lost mean that the war is rigged. Supporters of stevia continued to fight for its FDA approval as a food product, and at long last, in 2008, both the battle and war were finally won for stevia sweeteners. The ammunition that won this war included double-blind, peer-reviewed scientific evidence in indisputable support of the safety of stevia. And the scientific studies did not stop there. Since 2008, studies of stevia have proven tangible health benefits that cannot be discredited.
Hooray for stevia!
Stevia sweeteners contain zero calories and because it is 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, you can eat more of what you love when you use it! This makes it a great addition to your health, fitness, and weight loss efforts! As great as that is, stevia is most widely praised for its natural ability to regulate blood sugar levels, which we explained with metabolic science earlier in this article. Because stevia doesn't impact blood sugar levels or insulin responses, it is an ideal sweetener for diabetics. It also regulates blood pressure by relaxing the blood vessels, increases urine production, and helps eliminate excess sodium from the body, all of which help reduce the overall stress of your cardiovascular system. Stevia has also been said to be supportive of cancer prevention due to its high antioxidant content, which includes special glycoside compounds that bind to free radicals in the body so that they can no longer harm you. This binding process helps to prevent cells from mutating into cancers. Stevia reduces bacteria in the mouth, which is why you might have noticed it listed as an ingredient in your favorite toothpaste! And lastly, this all-natural sweetener is an excellent source of fiber, protein, iron, potassium, and magnesium!
Stevia health benefits roundup:
● Helps control blood sugar levels
● Aids in weight loss
● Regulates blood pressure
● Ideal for cancer prevention
● Contains healthy nutrients
● Promotes oral health
Hang on, though, friends and supporters of stevia! We must urge you to bear in mind a sobering reality, which is that not all producers of stevia are committed to preserving the nutritional benefits of the stevia leaf and worse, some use harmful alcohols and artificial sweeteners to alter the end-product sweetener they're selling.
How could this possibly happen?
It is during the filtration and "purifying" process where some stevia extract producers go terribly wrong. When companies filter and purify the stevia liquid extract with food-grade alcohol, it can compromise the integrity of the leaves. Alcohols like ethanol, methanol, or even rubbing alcohol--yes, some producers actually use rubbing alcohol so be sure to read labels before buying!--can affect both the human metabolism and immune system.
If you're looking for a stevia sweetener brand you can trust, Sweetly Stevia uses only non-GMO stevia plants and our extraction and purification process uses water and nothing else. Our production process is 100% natural and we never add sucralose, saccharin, xylitol, or sorbitol to our stevia products, which means that you never have to worry about adverse reactions or allergies. We are gluten-free, lactose-free, chemical-free, and alcohol-free, as well as vegan, halal, and kosher certified!