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Large scoop filled with Stevia grains, next to a smaller spoon, stevia leaves, and stevia cubes.

The Down Low on Stevia - Is it an Artificial Sweetener?

It's practically a unanimous opinion that a bit of sweetness can dramatically improve a person’s dining experience. But with stevia — "a bit of sweetness" is a bit of an understatement. 

Traditionally, the tall order of enhancing flavor with sweetness would fall on the shoulders of artificial sources such as refined cane sugar. But while this sugary add-on brings out the best in aromatic cuisine and comfort beverages like coffee and tea, it carries potential health concerns, such as elevated blood sugar levels. 

Elevated sugar levels, among other health hazards, caused people to re-evaluate their sweeteners some time ago. High blood sugar can lead to increased risks of health complications, including diabetes, kidney issues and vision problems when left untreated. It became necessary for food companies and manufacturers to move onto something that would provide this sweet flavor enhancement without the worrying side effects. 

The search led to the trending alternative to common refined sugar — the marvelous stevia sugar. But as we’ll soon discover, it isn’t all that new of a product. Additionally, there have been various claims made about this super sweetener — but how many of them hold true? Is stevia good or bad?

Stevia plant in front of wooden bowls and spoons.

Stevia — The Glorious Sweetener From Days Past

Stevia in the raw is a plant-based sweetener harvested from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana shrub, which is indigenous to tropical/subtropical America and a member of the Chrysanthemum family. While the sweetener in its modern form only gained popularity in recent decades, communities in Paraguay (where it’s known as ka'a he'ẽ - translated to sweet herb) have used it in culinary preparations for centuries.

A spike in commercial interest for the sweetener spawned cultivation projects in other distant parts of the world, such as Japan (a nation that banned artificial sweeteners decades ago).

What Is Stevia Made From?

Two organic compounds (steviol glycosides) contribute to stevia’s legendary sweetness: stevioside and rebaudioside. Specifically, rebaudioside is the sweetest ingredient in stevia products, making the substitute a whopping 30-200 times sweeter than processed sugar — an incredible stevia vs. sugar ratio.

In fact, most stevia sweetener products do not contain whole leaves but concentrations of the rebaudioside extract.

Initial Health Concerns Put to Rest

Although stevia has become a favorite among diners, it has sparked some concerns among authorities in the FDA who wondered, “is stevia safe?”

Initial research cited stevia dangers, such as a potential to cause cancer, which drove the FDA to ban the product in 1991. However, further studies in 1998 proved the fears unwarranted, and the ban was then reversed.

Despite the calming of initial concerns, stevia only gained the FDA’s GRA (Generally Recognized as Safe) grading in 2008. With the GRA rating, it became legal for food manufacturers and F&B outlets to include stevia as a sweetener in their products. Previously, the FDA restricted stevia only for items sold as dietary supplements. 

Stevia Side Effects and Warnings

Currently, the FDA certifies the acceptable daily intake for steviol glycosides at 4 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Experts generally find no stevia side effects in the moderate consumption of highly purified stevia as an additive or sweetener. 

Various animal-based stevia studies conducted in the past have proven inaccurate. However, a few individuals with sensitive bodily systems may experience gastrointestinal discomfort or stevia allergic reactions

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Stevia — Sweeten Your Life and Then Some

Stevia is an zero-calorie meal enhancer that might also provide a range of health benefits. One study in 2010 suggested that stevia intake might help you maintain blood sugar and glucose at healthy levels. Another study indicated that stevia might reduce bad cholesterol levels (LDL) while raising good cholesterol (HDL) without adverse effects. 

Scientists also reported some positive findings that go against earlier cancer claims. The study highlights stevioside’s cancer-killing properties in human breast cells while shutting off some pathways that can lead to cancer development. 

Stevia can help parents better manage the added sugar content in their children’s diets, potentially minimizing the risks of obesity and heart disease. True Lemon’s Kids healthy drink mixes by True Citrus come in an assortment of delicious flavors enhanced with stevia leaf extracts, including Fruit Punch, Pink Lemonade and Strawberry Banana. These will satisfy your child’s cravings — without the unnecessary, sugary calories! However, moderation is still key. You should manage your child’s stevia intake, as it is easier for children to reach their daily limits because they weigh less than adults. 

Thanks to its high sweetness content, you’ll probably use less stevia than standard fructose syrup or granular sugar, resulting in a longer-lasting supply. So for those with a sweet tooth, sprinkle some stevia on your cereal, add it to homemade ice cream, or kick start your day with any of True Citrus’ low calorie, sweetened drink mixes.