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A recent article on Mercola.com decries the sad fact that much of the stevia on the market at this point is genetically modified. Anyone who cares a modicum about their health (and presumably stevia users would fall in this category) is likely outraged that this natural sweetener has been degraded in such a way.

This highlighted the subject of alternative sweeteners for us here at Objective:Health, causing us to look a little deeper. Are alternative sweeteners really all they're cracked up to be? Is stevia, even in its whole plant form, completely innocuous and safe? Are large quantities of isolates normally found in small quantities in nature OK to be bingeing on?

Join us for our newest deep dive into sweeteners. Do we even need stevia?

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Running Time: 00:28:59

Download: MP3 — 26 MB

Here's the transcript of the show:

Doug: Hello, and welcome to Objective Health. I am your host Doug, and with me today are Elliot, Erica and Tiffany. In the background as usual, is Damian on the wheels of steel, the ones and twos.


Damian: Word. [Laughter]

Doug: Today, we are going to be talking about stevia. At this point, most people know what stevia is, at least anybody who is remotely interested in holistic health in some way. It has been around for years and it is often referred to as the best non-sugar sweetener, or non-caloric sweetener. It is a natural plant that has natural sweet qualities to it but doesn't contain carbohydrates; at least not excessive amounts of carbohydrate.

What caught our attention and made us want to do a show on this was an article by Dr. Mercola recently which talked about how GMO stevia is everywhere. The name of the article on Mercola.com was called Buyer Beware - GMO stevia is Everywhere. Looking at this article was interesting because it serves as a jumping-off point to talk about stevia, especially when people are going on to low-carb regimes. They are looking for things they can use to get that sweet taste that they are used to without pumping the carbs up and getting themselves out of ketosis.

I think a lot of people, myself and most of the hosts here included, became disenchanted with stevia after a while for various reasons, one being that a lot of people just don't like the taste.

Tiffany: It's nasty!

Doug: It has an artificial sweetener taste to it. To me, it always tastes like aspartame.

Tiffany: It lingers in your mouth afterwards too. I don't want that taste to be in my mouth after I drink a cup of tea.

Doug: Fair enough. The news that so much of it was genetically modified, and I will go into the details on that in a bit. When I hear about genetically modified things a lot of times I feel this real sense of loss because you can't really eat that food any more. In a lot of cases it might be something you are not eating anyway but they are going to be feeding it to animals, so trying to avoid it becomes more and more difficult. With stevia, I wasn't crushed but that's just me.

Erica: It is interesting that at the very beginning of the article they talk about how despite hundreds of years of safe use of stevia, in the traditional plant-form like we see behind Doug there, the US Food and Drug Administration labeled stevia leaf and the crude stevia extract as "unsafe food additives" and it was granted "GRAS, generally regarded as safe" status to certain high-purity steviol glycosides only. This buyer-beware is interesting because the devil is in the details as always.

Doug: The interesting thing about it is that the way that they're genetically modifying this is that it's not that they have actually made genetically modified stevia plants. What they have done is they have produced a yeast through genetic modification that will produce rebaudioside-A, the compounds in stevia that make it sweet. They've managed to manipulate the genetics of a yeast to produce those compounds.

What they have done is they have genetically modified yeast to make this stuff so when they label something as stevia, a lot of the time it's not even technically stevia, it's the stevia extract, but it's not even stevia extract because it's not extracted from stevia. It's an artificial creation of the same stuff that you find in stevia. So it's really an artificial sweetener, despite the fact that they are calling it natural or capitalizing off of the idea that it is a healthy plant. But there is no plant that is in this product.

Elliot: It's similar to a pharmaceutical. What they do is isolate the compound or the very chemical that is responsible for inducing the sweet taste or the sweet flavour. This is 100-times sweeter than sugar, so it is extraordinarily sweet. Anyone who has tried this knows that you can't go too heavy on the stevia because it is remarkably sweet.

But what they have done is they have taken this natural plant, like all other traditionally used herbs that have been used for hundreds if not thousands of years, they take this one compound or one chemical and they rebrand that or reclassify that. There is always going to be problems or you are always going to run the risk of coming against problems when you isolate a specific chemical from a plant.

This is what you see generally with big pharma, for instance with aspirin. You've got the original plant which was white willow bark and they saw that it had some of these properties and what they do is they derive the acetylsalicylic acid from that and then they have made aspirin. Unfortunately, while aspirin has many good effects, it also has some pretty nasty side-effects from long term use. It seems to be the case that this is partially what is going on here.

Doug: When you take a whole herb like white willow bark it still has those pain-killing properties, but there are natural compounds in there that buffer it and make it so the negative effects don't come through. That's a good example Elliot, bringing up aspirin because that one has nasty effects on the gastrointestinal tract. Aspirin can cause bleeding and ulceration, but white willow bark doesn't cause that. The theorized reason being that there are other compounds in there that counteract that negative effect.

In situations where there is some kind of herbal remedy that has been used for generations, for thousands of years, it has stood the test of time and the chances are even if there are negative effects from these isolated compounds they don't exist in the whole herb. It's like you're saying Elliot, any time they are isolating these things there are risks. You can't just be like "We have found the active compound and that is all we need". In a lot of cases that is not all you need.

Tiffany: So, only the isolates are approved by the FDA. Who has the power to make the isolates besides the large food companies like Cargill? Like your average person? They are going to use the whole leaf and it has been used for centuries. Cargill was voted one of the most evil companies on earth.

Erica: Notoriously. They are even calling it non-artificial even though it is GE created. That's why this article came out because there are so many different variations of it. I have a list here. Damian just showed a picture of Truvia. They are making all kinds of stuff out of it. For our listeners who are interested, SweetLeaf, Pure Via, Stevia in the Raw, and Truvia. With consumers wanting to cut down on sugar and who hear about stevia which is a leaf and is natural, all the different names should be looked at too to check the ingredients.

Doug: For sure, check the ingredients. A lot of the time stevia, if it is even in there, is a small component of what the entire product is. We've got a video about it from Dr. Berg. It is just a short piece. Maybe we can play that right now Damian? He basically goes into the different brands and what kind of stuff is in there.

Dr. Berg: Start reading the labels very carefully because of the assumption that just because something is keto-friendly like stevia it's healthy right? Well, a lot of the brands out there will have things like maltodextrin. That is an oxymoron because you are buying stevia to go low-sugar right? The actual stevia in it has the absolute highest type of sweetener on the glycemic index of all the sweeteners-maltodextrin. I think it's 110 on the glycemic index.

Think about sucrose, that is 65! Glucose is 100, maltodextrin is 110 so it's going to definitely spike your blood sugars. You really want to make sure that it doesn't say maltodextrin or dextrose or dextrin, any of those types of sweeteners. That is Stevia in the Raw. SweetLeaf has inulin which is fine for most people, but it can create some bloating. You have Betterstevia, which contains organic cane alcohol, I'm not sure you want to consume that.

Then you have Purvia which has organic stevia and natural flavours. One little point about natural flavourings is that many times they will use GMO ingredients, so you want to make sure if it is a natural flavouring it is non-GMO. For the most part, if you can just get stevia by itself it is going to be okay. Ideally it would be great if you can get stevia that is actually green and is not turned into this white powder which they use certain chemicals to bleach. They don't need to put those chemicals on the label if it is under half of a gram. They do use chemicals to process stevia to get rid of that aftertaste. Some people are going to react to it. Most people are not going to be sensitive to it so it is not a big deal, but realise that if you do react to it the chances are you are not going to react to the actual stevia plant if you grow it or if you buy it in a green powder.

Personally, I don't like stevia in my coffee. I think it's good in a liquid form in certain types of carbonated beverages. Other people like to bake with it, but the point about this video is just because something is so-called keto-friendly doesn't mean that it is really keto-friendly if it has things like this in it. Thanks for watching.

Doug: It's interesting because essentially with a lot of the sweeteners out there, the stevia ones in particular, you still have to read the labels. People would really like an easy time with these things and when they are trying to avoid sugar all they need to do is pick up a bottle of stevia, but honestly you always have to read the labels. There is no such thing as things that are just plain safe.

Elliot: One of the things to consider when taking a zero-calorie sweetener is that while it may physically contain zero calories but the problem is the effect that that is having on certain parts of the brain or on other systems in the body, particularly: the bugs in the gut, the dopaminergic system in the brain, in the nervous system, which is involved in appetite regulation, which is involved in weight deposition and how well you are operating your metabolism.

This hasn't really been fleshed out. There's some research to suggest that these non-caloric sweeteners may be having a similar effect on our hormones as sugar would. There actually maybe a bit of a mismatch here because unlike if you were to eat some sugar or refined carbohydrate, yes you would get the hormone associated with what happens when you eat sugar - such as insulin and various other ones - but those hormones would be appropriately released because you have intaken some sugar. Your body knows how to process that to some extent. It's not good in the long-term but you can burn sugar pretty well and you know what to do with it.

With these non-caloric sweeteners, some of the time what you are actually doing is telling the brain that you are taking sugar or carbohydrate when there is no carbohydrate or sugar actually being eaten so that can cause a real hormonal imbalance. I have been reading one interesting paper which was looking at the isolated rebaudioside-A - it's referred to as Reb-A - the sweet chemical found in stevia. What they have done is they have fed this to a group of rats and what they found is that it can have an effect on gene expression in certain parts of the brain, the mesolimbic reward centre.

It is having an effect on certain microbes in the gut. What it's doing to the microbes is that it induces them to make high levels of certain short chain fatty acids. These are by-products of their metabolism. They produce these fatty acids called acetate and valerate. These were positively correlated with fat-mass and total weight. So although the stevia may not contain any calories, just taking in a bunch of this really sweet compound is having an effect not only on the brain but also on the microbes which causes the microbes to produce certain fatty acids which then go on to affect our metabolism in a way that might might promote weight gain. You're not necessarily safe just because you are dodging the sugar. Actually, the chemicals you are having can be messing with your metabolism in a variety of ways and it's way more complex than just taking in more calories or less calories. Did that make sense?

Doug: Yes, it absolutely did. In fact, there are actually a couple of other things that are wrong with stevia. For one thing, I think that with the same kind of mechanism you were talking about there Elliot - you might have already mentioned it so apologies if I am repeating you - but it can actually lead to eating more later. Did you cover that already?

Elliot: No.

Doug: Apparently, one of the things that happens is that because you have tasted the sweetness and are setting your body up to receive calories but then don't receive calories it sets you up for cravings because suddenly your body is like 'where are those calories'? It starts wanting more. I was looking at a number of different articles about people talking about the dark side of stevia. A number of people actually report that they were eating bigger outside of that stevia that they were having. So if they were putting stevia in their tea or their smoothie in the morning, they found that they were actually eating more later on. It can lead to overeating as well.

Probably the biggest shocker that we were just talking about before the show, was finding out that in traditional cultures - I believe it was in South America - were at one time using stevia as a form of birth control. {wow whistle} Yeah. There was a study done that a lot of people out there argued hadn't been replicated so couldn't really know, but I think it is enough to invoke the precautionary principle. They found that when feeding it to rats they found something like a 50% drop in fertility. It might have even been more than that.

Elliot: It was 57-79%

Doug: There you go. Apparently, the molecule in stevia is very close in structure to hormones. They theorised that is what is going on there. I don't think that anybody that wants to sweeten their tea in the morning is really looking to become infertile. This isn't something that is widely publicized. Has anybody ever heard that if you are trying to conceive to stop taking stevia? I have never heard of that before.

Tiffany: No, I've never heard of it, but I did read an article about a woman who was using stevia and she stopped having her period. When she cut out the stevia, a month later her period came back.

Elliot: I think there have been quite a few cases of that. If you look at stevia, I think it's quite a potent phytoestrogen.

Erica: Studies have shown dramatic effects on estrogen and progesterone and they have a contraceptive effect on the body. They are calling them steviol glycosides.

Doug: What it comes down to is that there is no free lunch. You think you've found this miracle sweetener. Also Elliot, you would be interested to know that apparently stevia is quite high in oxalate. {laughter}

Elliot: If you are having the whole leaf it is definitely.

Doug: There's no real free lunch out there. I personally have come to a place where my diet is good enough that I don't really crave sweets so much. If I am going to have an occasional treat I use a natural form of sugar. I will use honey or cane sugar or something like that. I don't think having it once in a while it's going to kill you. I have done my time with the artificial stuff and I don't want anything to do with Xylitol, Erythritol or stevia; I'm done with them.

Tiffany: If you have to have a PhD in Research Science to figure out whether or not you should take an artificial sweetener then you probably just shouldn't do it. Like you said, people think they have come across a wonder-drug. The whole reason that people are taking artificial sweeteners is because maybe they have gone keto or maybe they have gone carnivore and they want to 1) lose weight, and 2) stop the sugar cravings. Then you find out that it does neither of those things and you can still gain weight because it can spike your blood sugar because if your brain senses sweet it is going to do what the brain does when it senses sweet!

Doug: Kill sugar cravings and lose weight.

Tiffany: Yeah, and you still get sugar cravings! You still want to eat sweets all the time so what is the point in taking it? Just act like the stuff doesn't exist or just use honey or use raw cane sugar, use real sugar because your body knows what to do with that.

I am mostly carnivore but if I cheat and eat something with sugar in it I'll just get really really hot at night and I might sweat a little bit because I ate too much sugar. {laughter} But the next day I'm probably back in ketosis, not that I ever check my keto strips or check my blood for it. Stop thinking that you are cheating something, you're not!

Doug: It's not a viable hack.

Elliot: Exactly. Unless you have got a medical condition which means that you need to completely withdraw from all dietary carbohydrates, all dietary sugars, then the body can burn glucose and fat. It's why our body makes glucose. We can burn it and we can do things with it, we know how to process it. Ok, we eat too much of it and it shouldn't be a regular thing, but actually a little bit of sugar here and there - unless you are a type-1 diabetic with uncontrolled insulin requirements or if you are epileptic - is not going to kill you.

But actually, taking these what you would call "abstract random compounds" like sugar alcohols like Xylitol is dangerous. Xylitol is derived from tree bark and it's a potent antibiotic. You can actually do some damage to your gut from taking too much xylitol. There are loads of people who get really adverse symptoms from taking Xylitol or Erythritol. A lot of these things are synthetic nowadays as well, just like the stevia. There's no free lunch. If you are going to eat something sweet you need to deal with the consequence of that. A lot of the time there are not that many consequences if it's just one time.

Tiffany: If you are reasonably healthy it is not going to kill you to have an occasional blood sugar spike. Your body should be able to handle it. It knows what to do.

Doug: The other thing is that when you really do cut down on sugar or any kind of sweetness, you start to notice the natural sweetness of natural foods. You don't need that sugar hit, that thing that we are so used to now with our processed foods, that really, really sweet taste. That starts to become overpowering and you don't even like it anymore and the natural sweetness of natural foods tends to be more enjoyable.

Erica: I think this is where companies like Cargill are ramping up commercial production of genetically engineered sweeteners. They are a huge food conglomerate and a lot of people know them for grain production. Their product is EverSweet and they just built a 50-million dollar production facility to make this stuff back in November.

So they're really looking to find a way to make money on the fact that people are coming to the idea that maybe all the carbs and sweets are not good for them, and they are dealing with obesity and health issues and these guys are trying to situate themselves right there in the market to continue to get their market share even though the stuff is evil.

Tiffany: There is a sucker born every minute. People always get taken in by food manufacturers' lies, so it is still up to everyone to do their own research. Even if you have the slightest suspicion it is not going to kill you to not have a little bit of sweetness every single day.

Doug: Just because they are serving cake doesn't mean you have to have the cake. Just graciously turn it down and then that's it. I think having a little bit of willpower about these things obviously goes a long way.

Tiffany: Also, eating enough fatty meat really cuts down on any sweet cravings. If you can find some kind of natural hack through your own diet whether it be not eating sweet stuff just to not awaken the beast, or having more fat in your meals to cut down on cravings. Try it and see what works.

Doug: Is there anything more to say about stevia?

Erica: Buyer beware!

Tiffany: Or Truvia.

Doug: It's the unnecessary non-caloric sweetener. {laughter} Alright folks, thanks for joining us, thanks to my fellow hosts. Be sure to "like" and subscribe to the video. Share it around with all your friends and anybody who has eaten stevia.

Erica: And had a bad experience.

Doug: Or not. Be sure to join us next time. We'll have another fantastic show for you all. Until next time, see you later!