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What is Estevia?

By B. Koch
Updated May 17, 2024
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Estevia is a type of plant, the extract of which is used as a low calorie sugar substitute. Its use has been controversial because there is studies that claim that it is beneficial and other studies that indicate that it may be dangerous. Currently, it is available as a food supplement but not as a food additive. It is also known as stevia.

An herb from the Chrysanthemum family, the estevia plant is native to South America, specifically Paraguay and Brazil. Its leaves are naturally sweet and are used as a type of sweetener. The extract is several hundred times sweeter than sugar yet has no calories.

Before 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not approved estevia as safe for human consumption, stating that there has not been enough research on the long-term effects of the product for it to be labeled as safe. It was, however, available as a dietary supplement, as supplements do not fall under FDA regulations.

Many claim that estevia is an effective natural sweetener that is not only safe to consume but also has beneficial side effects. Some maintain that it is especially beneficial for diabetics because it may lower blood sugar levels by promoting insulin production. Others speculate that it may become a treatment measure for type 2 diabetes, and studies indicate that it may lower blood pressure. Estevia can also benefit dental health because, unlike sugar, it does not cause tooth decay.

There are also arguments that estevia is harmful. Male rats that were fed it suffered form reduced sperm production along with other indicators of infertility, suggesting that it may have negative effects on the human male reproductive system. Some studies also indicate that it may contain mutagenic compounds, which can cause DNA mutation and, possibly, cancer. There is also evidence that consuming estevia may disrupt the body’s ability to metabolize carbohydrates and the body’s process of converting food into energy.

Although estevia extract itself is not available as a sweetener, the FDA has declared some refined versions of it as safe. These products contain rebaudioside A, one of the compounds found in the plant. Some individuals suffer mild side effects from these products, such as nausea or a feeling of fullness.

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Discussion Comments

By golf07 — On Sep 20, 2012

How many years of studies does it take for something like estevia to be considered safe as a food product?

I don't understand how a side effect of feeling full would be a bad thing. For someone trying to lose weight it might be helpful.

By sunshined — On Sep 19, 2012

It can be hard to eliminate white sugar, but it isn't impossible. I have found the less I eat sweet things made with sugar, the less I crave them.

I have used stevia as a sugar replacement and like the fact that it doesn't contain any calories and feel that it really is safer than some of the other sugar substitutes on the market since it comes from the leaves of an herb.

I like to use honey, agave and brown rice syrup when I am baking in place of sugar, but I am also aware that this is not recommended for people who are diabetic.

By SarahSon — On Sep 19, 2012

I have been trying to eliminate white sugar from my diet, but have been very frustrated because it seems like all of the sugar substitutes can have bad side effects.

When they first come out, everyone is excited about them and they are touted as being a safe alternative for sugar. After several years, studies are then done showing this isn't always the case. I am left wondering what I can use in place of sugar that is safe for me.

Stevia is sold in a lot of health food stores, so I usually assume this is a natural sweetener and healthier for me than sugar.

By LisaLou — On Sep 18, 2012

@anon286487-- I wish I had an answer to your question. I am also a diabetic and have been using stevia as a sugar substitute for the last year. My doctor says this is OK for me to use so I have felt like it was not doing me any harm.

It is so much sweeter than sugar, so you don't need to use very much to get the sweetness you are looking for. It is hard to know which sweetener is the safest for diabetics to use.

Some people say honey is the best natural sweetener, but I was told as a diabetic not to use this. I am going to ask my doctor about this the next time I see him, but in the meantime will probably continue using it until I am told differently.

By anon286487 — On Aug 21, 2012

I have used estevia for four years now. After reading all this, my question is, being a full blown diabetic, which sweetener available would do me the least amount of harm?

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