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How To Best Use Stevia For Losing Weight

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Stevia possibly harmful says study.

A new study warns that the popular non-nutritional natural sweetener Stevia may affect your gut microbiome. Here’s the latest recommendation on how to best use Stevia toward losing weight.

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Artificial Sweetener Safety

For many years dieters have had to worry about whether artificial sweeteners were really safe to consume. In addition, there has been growing evidence that artificial sweeteners may actually contribute to obesity.

Some short-term studies have noted that the gut’s microbiome may be adversely affected when artificial sweeteners are introduced into a person’s diet. One effect appears to result in an increased risk of developing glucose intolerance. Long-term studies have also showed a correlation between zero calorie artificial sweeteners and several metabolic syndrome-related health issues. Issues such as an increased weight and waist-to-hip ratio, glucose intolerance, higher fasting blood glucose levels, and higher A1C values that are indicative of metabolic syndrome; and therefore—obesity.

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Because of artificial sweeteners’ troubled past, the focus for cutting the sugar out of our diet—without losing the sweet taste we desire—has been the introduction of natural sweeteners that hold the promise of safety due to that they are naturally derived and presumably processed very lightly.

However, new research questions whether natural sweeteners are any safer when it comes to possible effects that it may have on our gut biome. In fact, a recent news release from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev reports that the popular all-natural sweetener Stevia, might be harming our gut biomes.

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A Little Artificial Sweetener History

This research is based on earlier studies performed by the Weizmann Institute that found that artificial sweeteners could actually lead to diabetes. In those earlier studies, researchers were motivated to investigate the safety of artificial sweeteners due to the paradoxical phenomenon that non-caloric artificial sweeteners do not appear to help reduce weight; but rather, appear to have just the opposite effect. They reason that this could be one of the causes behind our modern-day obesity epidemic.

In their studies they observed that mice fed artificial sweeteners were developing glucose intolerance. In repeat studies, regardless of the mice sub-species tested and the doses of the artificial sweeteners used, all mice eventually became glucose intolerant. Later, they determined that the artificial sweeteners were not being absorbed into the bloodstream. This then led to the hypothesis that the gut bacteria—being literally bathed in water solutions containing artificial sweetener—might be the source of glucose intolerance.

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In human studies they found that healthy participants who do not normally consume artificial sweetener, will became glucose intolerant in just one week after being fed artificial sweetener.

Natural Sweetener Safety

Due to the potential of artificial sweeteners to cause harm to our health, alternative food additives that are natural rather than artificial, low or no calorie, and sweet tasting have been the focus. In fact, one natural alternative to artificial sweeteners and sugar is the popular natural sweetener stevia. Stevia it turns out, is 100-to-300 times sweeter than regular table sugar; and, has no calories or carbohydrates. A boon for the dieting industry and dieters who follow the low to no-carb keto diet.

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Stevia is a natural sweetener and sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, native to Brazil and Paraguay, that has been used for many years to sweeten tea and other beverages by several non-Western cultures. Aside from its non-caloric sweet taste in beverages, stevia has proven to be a good sugar substitute due to its active compounds (steviol glycosides) which are both heat-stable and pH-stable making it adaptable for baked food products.

However, like its artificial sweetener predecessor, Israeli research scientists have recently reported in the scientific journal Molecules that the natural sweetener stevia may disrupt communications among gut bacteria, leading to possible health issues.

According to a news release from American Associates, Ben-Gurion University Of The Negev, the researchers state that while stevia inhibited these pathways, it did not kill off the bacteria. However, the scientists are unsure about what this means with respect to the overall health implications of such disruptions, and how they would translate into health issues.

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"This is an initial study that indicates that more research is warranted before the food industry replaces sugar and artificial sweeteners with stevia and its extracts," says lead researcher Dr. Karina Golberg, of the BGU Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering.

In a related news piece from the Jerusalem Post, while the initial findings are concerning, Dr. Golberg cautions that additional experiments are needed in order to give conclusive results, and is quoted stating that this does not mean stevia should be banned as of yet.

“Regarding safety, [at] this stage of the study we cannot say that stevia is toxic or not safe, and further in vivo studies are required,” Golberg told The Media Line, noting that the experiments were conducted in a lab setting and not on animals or humans.

“We’re not coming to say that ‘you are forbidden from taking stevia because there is a health implication,’” she stressed. “However, [those] taking stevia need to take into consideration that we can actually harm the microbiome by affecting its communication system.”

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How To Best Use Stevia For Losing Weight

The take home message is that gut biome health and its impact on the rest of the body regarding insulin tolerance, metabolic disease, obesity and weight loss is a relatively new field in which we can expect future studies exploring whether natural sweeteners like stevia are actually proven to be safe.

Thus far, there have been no direct reports of evidence from health experts that stevia is unsafe. And it is only fair to point out that often when such studies are done, the levels of stevia used in the studies are at relatively large doses to reveal whether there could be a health issue from taking stevia.

The best guide is a common-sense dieting approach—take everything in moderation. When trying to cut down on calories consumed or becoming carb conscious, use stevia as an alternative sweetener for those small steps you take toward counting your calories—such as in your morning coffee, sprinkled over a bowl of cereal, or mixed in with your unsweetened Greek yogurt smoothie.

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Stevia’s history tells us that it has been used safely by many cultures over the centuries as a sweetener for their beverages. And we can learn from that. However, its use in higher amounts such as sweetened coatings in syrups or in baked goods at much higher doses, could possibly be harmful. As the old saw goes, “The poison is in the dose.”

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In fact, the FDA categorizes stevia as “generally recognized as safe (“GRAS”)” and therefore does not require FDA approval as a food additive. However, its higher dose forms such as stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not considered GRAS and do not have FDA approval for use in food. Consumers are urged to avoid higher dose formulations until additional studies prove their safety.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Olga Oginskaya from Pixabay

References:

Could stevia be bad for your health? New study raises red flagThe Jerusalem Post December 3, 2020.

BGU Researchers and Colleagues Caution Stevia May Inhibit Gut Microbiome Communication” Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2 Dec. 2020.

Anti-Quorum Sensing Activity of Stevia Extract, Stevioside, Rebaudioside A and Their Aglycon Steviol” Markus, V. et al. Molecules 2020, 25, 5480.

Low-Dose Stevia (Rebaudioside A) Consumption Perturbs Gut Microbiota and the Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System” Nutrients 2019 Jun; 11(6): 1248; Published online 2019 May 31.

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