There’s a lot of controversy surrounding sweeteners.
It’s pretty much uncontested that diets high in sugar, whether refined white sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or even natural sweeteners like honey and agave, are associated with adverse health effects such as weight gain, obesity, and insulin resistance.
However, the health effects of artificial sweeteners and sugar alternatives are not as well understood. Stevia is an increasingly popular alternative to sugar. But, when comparing stevia vs sugar, which is healthier?
Some people argue that stevia is better than sugar because it is calorie-free while still being a plant-derived compound, while others say that you should have sugar vs stevia because any noncaloric sweetener is bad for the body and metabolism.
This article will discuss the pros and cons of stevia vs sugar, who may want to have stevia vs sugar, and how stevia and sugar compare.
We will cover:
- What Is Stevia?
- Sugar vs Stevia Nutrition
- Benefits of Stevia vs Sugar
- Benefits of Sugar vs Stevia
Let’s jump in!
What Is Stevia?
Stevia is a sugar substitute made from steviol glycoside molecules, which is extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant.
Steviol glycoside molecules are said to be 250–300 times sweeter than regular sugar, and the leaves of the stevia plant have been steeped and consumed in different ways for their sweetness for hundreds of years. Stevia leaves have also long been used in herbal remedies to reduce blood sugar.
Health experts often favor Stevia over other non-caloric sweeteners, such as sucralose (Splenda) and aspartame, because it is a plant-derived compound rather than an artificial sweetener made in a lab.
To make stevia products, the stevia glycosides must be extracted from the leaves by drying the leaves and then extracting the resins.
Stevia sweeteners are sold in a variety of forms, from liquid extracts to dry, crystalline powders in their concentrated forms.
In either of these forms, the stevia sweetener is highly concentrated, and just a few drops or a tiny pinch of crystals are used to sweeten your tea, baked goods, or whatever other product you are looking to sweeten.
Some stevia extracts and packets have additional ingredients and fillers such as sugar alcohols and citric acid.
You can also buy stevia sweeteners intended to be sugar replacements so they can be used in a 1:1 ratio with regular sugar.
Because Stevia sweetener is so concentrated in these particular products, other fillers are added to bulk up the volume without adding carbs, calories, or sugars. Maltodextrin is the most common additive, but there are others as well.
Sugar vs Stevia Nutrition
When comparing the nutrition of stevia vs sugar, neither product can be considered “healthy” or “nutritious” because no essential nutrients are found in either sweetener.
Regular sugar, in any of its forms, is composed entirely of carbohydrates.
There are about 16 calories per teaspoon (4.2 grams) of sugar, of which all 4.2 grams is sugar.
There are trace minerals provided, but nothing in any appreciable amount that will make a difference to your overall nutrient intake.
Stevia contains virtually no nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Because the glycoside molecules are so incredibly concentrated, such a minute amount is used, essentially negating any calories, carbohydrates, or sugar from the product.
Therefore, stevia is considered a non-caloric, sugar-free sugar alternative.
It is important to note that some stevia products are not pure, 100% stevia, so there may be additional ingredients found in the product.
This may alter the nutrient profile, but most sugar substitutes are specifically prepared and marketed as sugar-free, calorie-free alternative sweeteners, so they are usually devoid of any carbohydrates, sugar, or calories. However, there may be sugar alcohols and other acids added.
Benefits of Stevia vs Sugar
There are several potential benefits of eating stevia vs sugar.
Because stevia does not contain any calories, if you use it as a replacement for regular white sugar or other caloric sweeteners such as brown sugar, honey, or corn syrup, it is possible that stevia can help you lose weight.
One tablespoon of sugar provides about 42 calories, so if you normally consume a fair amount of sugar and choose to replace all of it with a stevia-based sweetener, you could be reducing your daily caloric intake by a couple of hundred calories or more per day.
Some studies have indeed found that it is possible to stay as full on fewer calories when eating stevia-sweetened food products compared to those that are sweetened with regular sugar.
This can help decrease total daily caloric intake, which may contribute to weight loss.
For example, one study found that people who ate a snack made with stevia (which had only 290 calories because of the non-caloric nature of the sweetener) ate the same amount of food at the next meal as people who ate a 500-calorie snack that was made with regular sugar.
Subjects who had the stevia-sweetened snack also reported the same levels of satisfaction and fullness between meals.
In addition to reducing caloric intake by providing a calorie-free sugar alternative, stevia may help contribute to weight loss by potentially decreasing appetite.
Animal studies have also suggested that the steviol glycoside rebaudioside A can increase the production of glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) and peptide YY (PYY).
These are both considered appetite-suppressing hormones. GLP-1 increases satiety and plays a key role in insulin secretion and glucose homeostasis, while PYY decreases appetite and has been shown to decrease subsequent food intake.
Another major benefit of stevia vs sugar is that sugar raises blood sugar levels while stevia does not.
One study found that after eating a coconut dessert made using a 50/50 blend of stevia and sugar for the sweetener, people experienced 16% lower blood sugar levels after eating than people who ate the same dessert sweetened entirely with sugar.
Not only does stevia not raise blood sugar, but it may actually help decrease blood sugar levels and increase insulin sensitivity.
Studies have also found that stevia can decrease triglycerides and increase levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
As both of these are associated with reducing the risk of heart disease, there’s a potential that replacing regular sugar with stevia may help reduce your risk of heart disease and improve cardiovascular health.
Benefits of Sugar vs Stevia
There are also potential drawbacks to stevia and reasons why some people might prefer to consume sugar vs stevia for their health.
Although stevia is indeed a plant-based non-caloric sweetener and thus more natural than other no-calorie sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame, it’s still a processed and refined product.
Most stevia products are actually blends that contain added fillers like maltodextrin. This compound has been linked to dysbiosis of the gut microbiome.
Moreover, evidence suggests that even pure stevia extract may cause dysregulation in healthy gut bacteria, inhibiting the growth of certain beneficial strains by up to 83%.
Much like regular sugar, the sweetness of stevia may also increase cravings for additional sweetness.
Some health experts believe that the intense sweetness level of stevia may heighten the resultant cravings for additional sweet foods, and there’s some evidence to suggest that both sugar and stevia (or other artificial sweeteners) may change taste preferences in favor of sweeter foods.
Sugar, for example, has been shown to activate the dopamine receptors in the brain in the same pleasure centers activated by drugs like cocaine.
This response can create an addiction to sugar and cravings for other sweet foods.
Although less research has been conducted on the brain effects of stevia and cravings and addiction, there is a chance that the same sort of response occurs. Additionally, because stevia is so much sweeter, the desire for more sweetness may be even greater.
Furthermore, although one of the benefits associated with choosing stevia vs sugar is to reduce spikes in blood sugar levels and, subsequently, high insulin levels, some studies have found that the body seems to respond the same way to noncaloric sweeteners as it does with regular sugar in terms of the insulin secretion after the sweetened product is consumed.
In other words, even though stevia doesn’t contain sugar per se, and blood sugar levels may not rise appreciably after eating a stevia-sweetened meal, snack, or beverage, the pancreas may still secrete the same amount of insulin as would be expected if a similar sweetness level was matched with an equivalent amount of regular sugar.
Finally, although one of the primary reasons people choose to consume stevia vs sugar is because stevia does not contain any calories and, therefore, may be a diet-friendly option for people trying to lose weight, some studies have found that consuming non-caloric sweeteners does not improve weight or reduce the risk of obesity or type 2 diabetes.
Ultimately, stevia may be healthier than sugar for those who are on a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, or low-sugar diet.
Because stevia does not contain calories, replacing regular sugar with stevia may help support weight loss.
However, there is still much to be learned about the potential health consequences of consuming a lot of stevia-sweetened foods, and many stevia products contain additional fillers.
It is best to work with your doctor or a registered dietitian to decide what types of sweeteners are healthiest for you and if you should have stevia vs sugar.
If you feel you crave and eat sweets more than you would like, consider a sugar detox, which may help you reset your palate and taste buds and decrease your reliance on highly-sweetened foods for pleasure.