An evidence based review of stevia vs other sugar free sweeteners.
One of the biggest questions we get about our products is why we choose to use stevia over other sweeteners.
After all… there are quite a few to choose from. Just take one look at other products on the market and you’ll find an A-Z of sweeteners each claiming to be a healthy alternative to sugar. So why is it that we choose stevia above them all?
Based on years of research we believe stevia to be the healthiest and safest sweetener on the market which is why we choose to use it in our products. In this article I will show you the evidence that led us to make this decision.
I’ll also be taking a closer look at the research behind other common sweeteners such as sucralose, thaumatin and xylitol so you can see why we continue to use stevia over the rest.
If you’re confused about which sweeteners are safe to consume and which are best avoided, I hope this article can help you!
What is stevia?
To understand why we use stevia in our products we must first understand exactly what stevia actually is.
Unlike artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose which are man-made, stevia is a herb that originates from South America. For centuries stevia has been traditionally used as a sweetener and even a herbal medicine, and in more recent years it has begun to gain popularity in the Western world.
Stevia is naturally very sweet and is considered to be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, but it contains extremely few calories and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. This is why stevia has quickly become a popular alternative to sugar and is now found in many foods and drinks.
Is stevia healthy?
In a double blind placebo controlled study over 2 years researchers found that consuming stevia helped to reduce blood pressure in patients suffering from mild hypertension.¹
In another study published in 2010 researchers found that consuming stevia resulted in reduced blood sugar levels after meals when compared with sugar and the artificial sweetener aspartame.²
A third study found that stevia may have the potential to reduce breast cancer growth, but further research is required to validate these claims.³
Stevia has been the subject of over 30 years of safety testing throughout the EU, North America and Australia. This makes it one of the most extensively studied sweeteners on the market. Not one researcher has been able to find credible evidence that shows adverse health effects of stevia consumption in humans.
There is one study on rats that shows that excessive stevia consumption may cause DNA mutation. This happened when the intestinal bacteria of the rats transformed compounds in stevia called steviosides into a new compound called steviol – which is also toxic in humans.
But it turns out when researchers said ‘excessive’ they really meant it. The rats were fed levels of stevia that would be almost impossible for humans to achieve in a normal diet.⁴
According to the latest research by the World Health Organisation stevia causes no side effects when consumed at levels below 4mg per kg of bodyweight. I weigh 75KG, so I’d have to consume 300mg of stevia daily to be above the upper limit. To put that number into perspective it is about the equivalent of 28 of our protein shakes.
Stevia also doesn’t appear to cause any negative impact to our gut bacteria, which as you will see later in this article is a common theme throughout many other sweeteners.
All of the evidence currently available shows that stevia is a perfectly safe and healthy sweetener. This is why we use it in our products and I recommend it to people as an alternative to sugar.
As with all of our ingredients we promise to stay open minded to new research, so if anything were to come out that suggested stevia to be in any way unhealthy we would look to replace it in our products immediately.
Now that we’ve covered stevia, let’s take a look at the other main sweeteners on the market so you can understand why we don’t use those ones.
One of the most widely used sweeteners on the market right now is called sucralose. Sucralose is a substance derived from sugar using a complex chemical process that involves replacing hydrogen-oxygen atoms in the molecule with chlorine atoms. Because it involves chemical interference sucralose is considered an artificial sweetener.
The research on sucralose is currently mixed, but it is important to note that a lot of it has been funded by the company Splenda who are the biggest producer of sucralose in the world. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to suggest that these studies may be biased in favour of a positive outcome in order to help sucralose gain more popularity. This is one of the reasons the use of sucralose remains very controversial.
When it comes to weight maintenance sucralose appears to be a better option that sugar. Consuming sucralose appears to have little or no effect on blood sugar and insulin levels.⁵
Sucralose may also help overweight people lose weight when used as a direct replacement for sugar.⁶ This makes sense as it does not contain the same amount of calories.
However, recent research suggests that consuming sucralose may be damaging to our gut health. A 2017 study on the microbiome found that sucralose consumption reduced beneficial bacteria in the gut by up to 50%. Additionally, researchers found that 12 weeks after stopping sucralose consumption the bacteria had not recovered.⁷ Given the tremendous importance of gut health in our overall wellbeing this is one of the main reasons I recommend avoiding sucralose.
My biggest concern with sucralose is the lack of long term research that has been conducted on this substance. It is easy to perceive no changes in a patient in a 12 week study, but if you were to consume sucralose for months or even years the results may be very different.
The truth is it is hard to know the impact that a chemically altered substance like sucralose can have on our body, especially when we consider it was only first discovered in 1976. When you compare this to something like stevia that has been consumed for centuries it makes sense to stay on the side of caution.
Verdict: Potentially unsafe. Further long term research required.
Unlike other sweeteners that require more research, the jury has been in on aspartame for a while now. And the evidence is clear that this one should be well and truly avoided.
Aspartame is made by combining the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid using chemical methods. When your body processes aspartame, part of it is broken down into methanol. Methanol is toxic when consumed in large quantities, but smaller amounts are also a concern when combined with free methanol because of enhanced absorption. Free methanol is created when aspartame is heated. Free methanol is converted into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin, by our body.
Scientists began researching the potential negative impacts of aspartame when people started complaining of headaches after consumption. It has since been linked with depression, brain disorders and cancer, and has been identified by the FDA as a known trigger for epileptic seizures.
In a study on rats twelve of the 320 rats fed aspartame developed brain tumours, whilst none of the control rats developed tumours.⁸ Further research on humans is currently ongoing, but the extent at which the trials can be conducted is very limited due to ethical concerns. This is why many experts recommend exerting extreme caution when it comes to aspartame consumption.
Much like sucralose aspartame also appears to have a negative impact on our gut bacteria. According to research conducted at the Ben-Gurion University in Israel and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, bacteria in the digestive system became toxic when exposed to doses of aspartame as low as one mg./ml.
With the current research suggesting the dangers of aspartame consumption I would strongly recommend avoiding this sweetener wherever possible.
Xylitol, Sorbitol and Erythritol
Next we will look at a category of sweeteners known as sugar alcohols, which occur naturally in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables but in more recent times have been isolated for use as a commercial sweetener. These sugar alcohols appear to be much safer than artificial sweeteners but may cause GI distress in sensitive individuals.
Common examples of sugar alcohols used in food products include xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol. They are considered as ‘low digestible carbohydrates’ as they are partially absorbed in the small intestine by processes that require little to no insulin. This has made them a popular choice of sweetener for diabetics. Sugar alcohols contain less calories than traditional table sugar with the same amount of sweetness.
The remainder of the sugar alcohol that isn’t absorbed is passed into the large intestine where they are fermented by our gut bacteria. Thus, consumption may cause digestive discomfort, flatulence, or laxative effects.⁹ Sugar alcohols are considered to be part of a group of food called FODMAPS which can cause digestive problems in sensitive individuals.
Unlike artificial sweeteners sugar alcohols are generally accepted as safe. In one long term human study, 35 participants consumed xylitol for two years as their primary sweetener with levels regularly exceeding 100g per day. No adverse effects apart from GI distress were observed (and these symptoms dissipated over time, presumably as the gut bacteria adapted to the sugar alcohol).¹⁰
Taking into account the research we currently have available I consider sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol to be safe providing you do not suffer from sensitive digestion. The reason we do not use them in our products is because many of our customers do have a sensitive stomach, so using a sugar alcohol could cause uncomfortable side effects in a large percentage of people using them.
If you do choose to use sugar alcohols in your diet I recommend starting with a small amount to see how your body reacts. From there you can slowly increase the dose to give your gut bacteria time to adapt.
Verdict: Safe, but may cause GI distress in sensitive individuals
With demand for sugar free sweeteners increasing there is a new ingredient that is starting to gain popularity. It is called thaumatin, a protein that is extracted from the katemfe fruit native to West Africa.
At the time of writing this article I am unable to find any long term studies on humans that can clearly show whether thaumatin is healthful or harmful. However anecdotal evidence shows that thaumatin has been used in West Africa since at least the 1800s. With that said I would still want clear further research before considering the use of thaumatin in our products.
Another thing that concerns me about thaumatin are the regulations surrounding its use in the EU. Thaumatin is incredibly sweet – approximately 2000 times sweeter than sugar – so in food preparations is only used in miniscule amounts. From my research almost all of the thaumatin on the market is cut with a simple sugar like fructose, sucrose or maltodextrin. But according to EU regulations a sweetener only has to be 10% thaumatin content to be labelled as thaumatin on the label – which means up to 90% could be sugar! Therefore if you see thaumatin on a product it is highly unlikely that it is this ingredient alone.
Due to the lack of research and unreliability of supply, at this time I do not think thaumatin would make a suitable sweetener in our products. With that said I remain open minded to new research and would consider using it if it is proved safe and a reliable supply of pure thaumatin is established.
Verdict: Further research is needed
Monk Fruit Extract
Monk Fruit Extract, otherwise known as Luo Han Guo, is one sweetener that I like.
Monk fruit is native to South East Asia where it has been used for centuries as a sweetener and in traditional medicine as a remedy for coughs, constipation and diabetes. The sweetener is made by removing the seeds and skin of the fruit, crushing it, collecting the juice then drying it into a concentrated powder. This also makes it one of the least processed sweeteners on the market.
Although the monk fruit itself does contain calories and carbohydrates, the concentrated sweetener is so sweet it is considered to be a zero calorie sweetener. Estimated to be around 250 – 300 times sweeter than sugar, just a very small amount of monk fruit is required to achieve a sweet taste in food products.
Studies have shown monk fruit to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and even anti-cancer properties.¹¹ ¹² Monk fruit may also be beneficial to diabetics for its ability to lower blood sugar.¹³ Unlike thaumatin I was able to find a lot of credible research on monk fruit that suggests it to be safe, along with the anecdotal evidence of its consumption in South East Asia for hundreds of years.
So, what’s the downside you ask? Monk fruit has yet to be approved for use in the EU! When new ingredients come to the market it takes quite a long time for them to be approved by the EU regulating bodies who decide whether a food is safe or not. Of course these strict safety measures are a good thing but it means that it is going to be a little while before we see monk fruit used in products here in Europe. However the developments are looking promising and I wouldn’t be surprised to see monk fruit approved in the EU in the next couple years.
(Incidentally monk fruit was approved by the FDA in 2010 which is why it is starting to pop up in food products in the USA).
Monk fruit is an ingredient I am keeping a close eye on and would consider using it in products once it is fully approved in the EU.
Verdict: Safe, pending EU approval
Coconut sugar and date sugar
OK, so if most sugar free sweeteners are off the menu for safety or regulatory reasons… surely we would consider a sugar alternative like coconut sugar or date sugar?
I like these sweeteners and do use them myself from time to time. Coconut sugar is lower GI than cane sugar, and date sugar contains some essential minerals like potassium and calcium. When consumed in small quantities they are perfectly safe for a healthy individual. But including them in a protein powder just wouldn’t make any sense.
That’s because these sweeteners are so much less sweet than stevia, so you’d need a significantly higher amount to get the same level of sweetness. Remember that stevia is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. In theory this means you’d need 200 times the amount if you were using coconut sugar or date sugar. As a result you’d be consuming additional sugar every time you wanted a protein shake.
By my calculations, if we used coconut sugar instead of stevia our protein powder would provide 9 – 12 grams of sugar in each serving. For someone consuming multiple servings of our products each day these additional sugars would soon start to add up. Using coconut sugar would also mean less protein per scoop, as the more functional ingredients have to make way to fit in more sugar. As a result you’d only be getting around 17g of protein per serving, versus the 25g you get in our actual formula.
The whole reason we use stevia in the first place is to deliver a concentrated sweetness without additional sugar. This way you are not consuming added sugars when you use our protein powder, but can still enjoy a great tasting protein shake.
We do use coconut sugar in our MAGIC products, but as the serving size is a lot less you don’t need anywhere near as much. Plus, MAGIC is less about achieving the perfect macro ratio and more about making amazing medicinal mushrooms easy for everyone to enjoy.
Verdict: Safe, but not suitable for protein powders
With so many options on the market today we are more spoilt for choice than ever when choosing how to sweeten our food and drinks. I hope that this article has allowed you to understand them better so that you can make educated decisions about what sweeteners you include in your own diet.
Based on the research currently available I am still extremely confident that stevia is the healthiest and safest choice for our protein powders. A little xylitol or erythritol won’t hurt most people, and sweeteners like coconut sugar and date sugar are fine in moderation. I will also be keeping a close eye on monk fruit with a view to future product development.
Catch you soon,