Is the sugar substitute stevia bad for our health?
New research into the plant-based sweetener stevia indicates that the sugar substitute may have negative implications for gut health.
People use sugar substitutes as a way to reduce their sugar intake. Excess sugar consumption can cause weight gain, lead to diabetes, and contribute to inflammation in the body.
For this reason, researchers have worked to find the perfect replacement that tastes like real sugar and is safe to consume.
Scientists have considered stevia a safe sugar alternative for years, but a new study raises the question of whether it can be harmful to gut health.
What is stevia?
Sugar replacements come in handy for many people, including individuals with diabetes who need to control their blood sugar and those trying to reduce their calorie intake to reach or maintain a moderate weight.
Various substitutes are available. These include several artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin, and the sugar alcohols xylitol and erythritol.
Some people use plant-based options to replace sugar, and stevia is one such sweetener that is widely available.
People have used the plant stevia as a sweetener for hundreds of years. People originally discovered the plant in Brazil and Paraguay and now grow it all over the world.
Stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, so only a very small amount is necessary to achieve a sweetening effect.
Some people prefer plant-derived stevia over artificial sweeteners that manufacturers create in a lab.
Moreover, stevia is a zero-calorie substitute, whereas other artificial sweeteners may have a few calories. Another benefit to stevia is that it has a glycemic index of less than 1, so it does not raise blood sugar the way a few alternatives do.
Some sugar substitutes are also safer than others. Studies have linked other substitutes, such as sucralose and saccharin, with tumor growth in mice, although these effects are not confirmed. Research on stevia, on the other hand, had not previously uncovered any serious negative health implications.
Importance of gut health
Although people generally understand the importance of maintaining a moderate weight and engaging in best practices for heart health, they sometimes overlook gut health.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Hohmann of the Infectious Diseases Division at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, “This is a new frontier of medicine, and many are looking at the gut microbiota as an additional organ system.”
Hohmann goes on to say, “It’s most important to the health of our gastrointestinal system, but may have even more far-reaching effects on our well-being.”
The digestive system is home to various types of bacteria. Some of these bacteria help keep the body healthy. Maintaining a healthy and balanced gut is important in many ways.
Some gut bacteria can prevent inflammation, protect against certain types of cancer, and reduce symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
There are various ways to maintain a healthy gut, one of which is to avoid the overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotics can affect the good bacteria living in the gut.
Avoiding foods that can harm gut health, such as processed foods and red meat, is also important. People can take probiotics, eat foods high in fiber, and eat fermented foods, such as yogurt or kombucha, to promote good gut health.
Stevia research results
While experts typically view stevia as a safe sugar replacement, the latest research indicates that it may have some drawbacks.
Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba, Israel, focused on stevia in a study that recently featured in Molecules. Their findings suggest that stevia can have a negative effect on gut health.
The research team studied two forms of stevia: the commercialized herb supplement and purified stevia extract. They looked at how the different forms of stevia affect bacterial communication.
The gut has quorum sensing (QS) pathways. These pathways enable bacteria molecules to communicate with each other, which is important in terms of microbial regulation.
The team found that the stevia herb supplement had an “inhibitory effect on bacterial communication.” The purified stevia extract showed “a molecular interaction and possible interruption of [some forms of] bacterial communication.”
While the study shows that stevia may contribute to an unbalanced gut, neither form of stevia showed evidence of killing bacteria in the gut.
Lead researcher Dr. Karina Golberg, who is part of the BGU Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering, commented on the findings:
“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.”
The researchers plan to study stevia more closely and use their findings to shape guidelines for stevia intake.
“With reference to the effects identified in our study and the growing consumption of stevia, we urge that more studies be conducted to help further elucidate the effects of these sweeteners and to adjust the highest daily doses recommended today,” the study authors write.