When working with Alchemist Eating clients (or planning my own meals), I start with some basic “primal parameters”:
1. Eat real, whole food: I’m talking high-quality meat, fish and eggs; healthy fats and oils; lots of veggies; and moderate amounts of fruit, nuts and seeds. (For some people, high-quality, full-fat dairy is okay too, as are “occasional, sensible indulgences,” such as dark chocolate.)
2. Avoid: grains, legumes, processed food, added and artificial sweeteners, and chemically altered fats and oils.
From there, I add, subtract and tweak based on individual needs and Chinese Medicine food therapy.
But the question often arises: “What about (insert your questionable food, beverage or supplement here) ???”
Sometimes the answer is straightforward. Sometimes it falls in a grey zone.
This “What about” series is all about those questions, starting with…
What about stevia?
Ahh, wish I had a simple Yes or No. But turns out, stevia’s one of those “grey-zone, it-depends” items.
The “stevia” used as sweetener is Stevia rebaudiana—one species of many in the stevia plant family. Made up of the plant and its leaves, stevia in its natural form is green—whether whole or dried and powdered.
Traditionally, indigenous populations of South America brewed whole stevia as tea—not as a sweetener, but as a contraceptive.
Some evidence does seem to confirm anti-fertility action (for males and females). But to get this effect you likely have to consume large quantities very often.
Meanwhile, in Japan, stevia’s been used for decades in the treatment of diabetic patients.
It appears to lower blood glucose and to help with post-meal glucose clearance without increasing appetite. Plus, in addition to blood sugar regulation, studies point to other benefits (for a summary, see Mark Sisson’s great post here).
More to the point for most who ask whether it’s okay…stevia has zero calories and is naturally sweet (though often with a bitter aftertaste).
So we’ve got a natural, non-caloric alternative to 1) real sugar and 2) artificial sweeteners.
Sounds great, right? Yeah, but the problem is two-fold.
First, most people consuming stevia aren’t getting the whole, raw, green stuff.
They’re using highly processed versions, whether in the form of white powders or liquid extracts. These products contain one or more of the glycosides that make stevia sweet. (Most stevia labeled “raw” or “natural” contains the the full range of glycosides, whereas others tend to isolate one or more.)
The white powders contain other ingredients as well, often including maltodextrin (corn, most likely genetically modified) along with mysterious, undisclosed “natural flavors.”
Meanwhile, the liquid extracts may be made from the whole plant…or from refined, highly processed stevia. And store-bought items that include stevia (e.g., juices, bars) typically contain the processed stuff.
As a general rule, I say stay away from all highly processed, “food-like” substances. Yes, even stevia.
But what if you have the real, raw, green stuff? What about that?
Okay, okay…that’s fine in moderation. But so, for most people, are moderate amounts of caloric whole-food sweeteners, such as raw honey.
The key word here is moderation (and I find many people interpret this far too loosely).
A little raw stevia once a day is fine (and may have health benefits). But, as with any sweetener, more than that feeds a sugar habit and gets in the way of re-sensitizing your taste buds to the natural, less extreme sweetness of foods such as carrots (and even meat!).
So…what about stevia? Here’s my take, in short form:
1. The raw, green unprocessed stuff is fine in moderation and may have health benefits.
2. Stay away from highly processed white powders (as well as any liquid extracts, juices, bars or other products that contain them and/or other unhealthy additives).
3. Ask yourself: “Am I using stevia to reinforce an unhealthy sugar habit?”
Got your own “What about” questions? Ask away!