You're cutting down on sugar and permanently banned artificial sweeteners, but you want to sweeten your coffee or tea. Smart moves, considering the average American consumes a whopping 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugar every year. And artificial sweeteners aren't any better: Studies show they also contribute to health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
As a chiropractor, I often have patients ask the best way to sweeten their tea or coffee. They sometimes opt for honey or agave, yet I remind them these and other so-called healthy sweeteners more or less behave like sugar with all its detrimental consequences.
Fortunately, I have a healthy alternative to recommend with stevia, or stevia rebaudiana, an herb that grows in North and South America. Its white crystalline compound, called a stevioside, has zero calories and is about 100 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar.
Studies show stevia offers a vast array of health benefits, including—and this is a mouthful!—being antihyperglycemic, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antidiarrheal, and immune boosting.
For folks with type 2 diabetes or blood sugar imbalances (that includes most of us), researchers find stevia can enhance glucose intolerance and improve metabolic syndrome. Other studies show stevia might help prevent cardiovascular diseases in patients with long-standing diabetes.
Many stevia studies involve rodents, but one human study found stevia could decrease plasma glucose levels and improve glucose tolerance, all good news for anyone with blood sugar issues. Stevia can also help reduce mild hypertension, prevent arterial plaque buildup and decrease LDL cholesterol levels, and even potentially prevent cancer.
With so many benefits, you might conclude that stevia is the perfect sweetener alternative. Yet a 1985 study showed stevia could be a mutagen in rats and create potential liver problems. In 1993, researchers debunked that study as flawed, arguing limited amounts of stevia aren't dangerous. Regardless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stuck with the "unsafe food additive" label they gave stevia in 1991. They allowed stevia products to be sold only as dietary supplements rather than sweeteners.
Commercial sweeteners get away with selling stevia as a sweetener because they use rebaudioside A, derived from the stevia plant. (You'll often find stevia in the supplement aisle.) The FDA claims rebaudioside A is not stevia but "a highly purified product." Regardless of whether you buy rebaudioside A or stevia, I frequently recommend this sweetener. At the same time, many patients find navigating the ever-increasing amount of stevia options at their supermarket or health food store challenging.
5 Strategies To Simplify Stevia Shopping
1. Go pure. Your best option becomes a 100 percent pure, organic stevia with no additives. Read labels very carefully: Many commercial brands add dextrose (sugar), lactose (dairy), maltodextrin (corn), and other bulking agents.
2. Less is more. Stevia might initially taste bitter, yet one review found artificial sweeteners taste more bitter than stevia and other natural alternative sweeteners. Of course, this differs among individuals who have different genetic bitterness receptors. Even if it doesn't taste bitter, too much stevia (and it doesn't take much) can create a wince-inducing, overly sweet taste. Less is definitely more here.
3. Don't overdo it. Because stevia is much sweeter than sugar, it could potentially alter your taste buds to become more sugar-adapted. This intense sweetness can hijack your biochemistry, potentially causing you to crave sweet-tasting foods. Zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia can also create something called caloric dysregulation, confusing your body because the sweetness degree no longer matches its caloric load, potentially triggering cravings and overeating.
4. Consider others. Even with the tiniest amount of stevia, some patients find it unpalatable. If that's you, consider other natural alternative sweeteners like monk fruit, which provides an antioxidant-rich sweetener that, like stevia, offers potential blood-sugar-balancing and other health benefits. Sugar alcohols like xylitol provide another alternative. Researchers find in rats with type 2 diabetes, the sugar alcohol xylitol can optimize blood glucose, glucose tolerance, insulin levels, and lipid profile. Other studies show xylitol can prevent tooth caries and improve oral health.
5. Try going cold turkey. Eventually, I encourage patients to taper off all sweeteners and appreciate the natural sweetness of, say, cinnamon or vanilla. Many former sugar addicts express surprise when former favorite foods suddenly become far too sweet and unpalatable, and suddenly foods like almonds reveal their natural sweetness.