Is stevia vegan? Is stevia natural? How is stevia made?
Questions like these pop up in my head since I’ve been seeing stevia pop up in a lot of fitness products lately.
This article shares the results of the research I did that provided the answers to these & other questions about stevia I’ve been wondering about.
There’s stevia the plant, and then there’s the processed stevia product that tastes weird to me; is IT still vegan-friendly?
How natural is that powder, and what do they do to go from a green plant to a way-too-powerful sweetener in white powder form?
I’ll share the facts that answer all of these questions in a bit, and let’s start with one of the big ones.
Is stevia vegan?
The sweetener stevia comes from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant.
And since no animal products are used during the course of its extensive processing from green leaves to white powder, it is technically vegan-friendly.
Whether stevia is natural or not is debated, due to the many man-made chemicals used in its processing.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
I’ll be sharing info on how stevia is made, its somewhat controversial “natural” status with the FDA, & its benefits, side effects & safety issues.
I’ll also provide a review comparing the purity of the 9 best-selling stevia brands.
Next, I want to start us off with a little background on where that white stevia powder started from.
Where stevia comes from
At one point in time…
…the powdered white stevia sweetener you use to cook with, and the oddly-named additive Stevia Rebaudioside A that I’m seeing more & more of in popular protein powders, was a plant.
It’s name (back when it was still green) was Stevia Rebaudiana, pronounced
and it’s common name is sweetleaf.
It’s in the Aster/Ragweed family, and here’s a pic of it in bloom:
Fresh stevia leaves vs. processed stevia
I grew a stevia plant in my front yard for five or six years, grabbing a few of its sweet leaves to chomp on whenever the mood struck.
That plant did not taste like the powder you can buy or the sweet flavor you get in stevia-laced processed foods.
And it’s those leaves of the stevia plant that are used to make the processed powder that’s been coming on strong in the fitness supplement and sweetener marketplaces over the last decade. (1)
The leaves contain incredibly (I’d go with “overpoweringly”) sweet chemicals in them called steviol glycosides, and that’s the vein of gold as far as processed sweetener manufacturers go.
Sweetness comparison: sugar vs stevia
A (perhaps shocking) way to see how sweet processed stevia is, is to compare its steviol glycosides to table sugar, AKA sucrose.
Here’s a chart listing the various glycosides that are extracted from stevia leaf & processed into the marketed sweetener & food additive.
source: Nutrition Today
The chart is showing us “how many times sweeter than sugar” each of those steviol glycosides is.
And you can see that Rebaudioside A is 200 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar.
No wonder my whole mouth gets blown away every time I taste test a new protein product that is using “Stevia Reb A”, as it’s often listed on the Ingredients panel.
How stevia is made
I came up with a couplet to kick off this section of the article:
Stevia starts out as a plant so green,
Ends up a white powder, with a lot going on in between.
Here’s my broad-brush attempt at describing the step-by-step process that turns a stevia plant into a white powdered sweetener or an additive to a food product.
As noted earlier, stevia’s vegan…but how natural is it?
I think that depends on how each person feels about stevia’s manufacturing process, which I describe next.
The steps needed to make stevia powder
*Plants are harvested with only the leaves being taken & then dried, since they have the sweet glycosides compounds.
*The dried leaves are set in hot water to separate the glycosides from the plant matter, which is then tossed.
*The glycosides+water concoction then goes through a series of mechanical & chemical purification & decolorization steps.
It is these purifying steps where a lot of controversy surrounding the issue of “just how natural IS that stevia powder, anyway?” (3)
*To strip out the color in the glycoside water, electricity is run through the water followed by filtration, with this 2-part step being repeated a few times. (4)
*One of the first purification steps is to use electrocoagulation, which means electricity is used to help further separate & remove anything that isn’t the glycosides.
Stevia’s controversial chemical processing
At this point, the stories about the processing of stevia diverge, with the Big Sweetener industry on one side & clean food advocates on the other.
Here’s how the stevia we’re now consuming winds up its journey at the factory, first from Stevia.com.
Keep in mind >> Stevia.com is owned by Truvia® who is owned by Coca-Cola. (5)
“After multiple stages of filtering and centrifuging to concentrate the sweetest components of the leaf, the resulting purified stevia leaf extract is ready to be sold commercially.” (6)
According to food consumer advocate Marion Nestle, Big Stevia forgot to mention something:
“Stevia is extracted from leaves with ethanol.” (7)
Author & chef Jane Bartholemy notes on her Jane’s Healthy Kitchen site,
“Processing is done with a variety of chemicals such as, methanol, arsenic, ethanol, acetone, and others.” (8)
From the Huffington Post:
“…stevia leaf extract is indeed processed in a lab through the use of ethanol.” (9)
And finally, here’s a word or two from legal documents used in a couple of lawsuits filed against Jamba Juice, thanks to the stevia in their All-Natural Smoothie Kits:
“it is allegedly purified through a harsh chemical process that includes washing a watery stevia extract with ethanol, methanol, and rubbing alcohol.” (10)
The second lawsuit has the same “stevia is NOT natural” angle, and lists the following chemicals used in the purification process as proof: (11)
- calcium hydroxide
- aluminum sulfate
- hydrochloric acid
- sodium hydroxide
Stevia’s origin bottom line:
Stevia is a vegan-friendly product.
It came from a plant and it contains no animal products whatsoever.
Stevia goes through quite a bit of processing, and some of that involves the use of harsh chemicals.
So it may be a vegan-friendly product, but whether or not someone considers stevia a natural product is likely a matter of their personal beliefs.
Time to take a quick peek at what the good ol’ FDA has said about stevia’s ‘natural-ness’.
After all, they’re the ones who approved stevia’s “natural” status in the first place.
How stevia is classified by the FDA
The FDA classifies stevia as a safe food ingredient versus a food additive.
This ruling allows stevia to be manufactured & marketed at will by the food industry without strict approval.
In 2008 stevia obtained the coveted GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) ruling from the FDA. (12)
Why does that matter so much to the stevia industry?
From the FDA’s note on stevia:
“If food ingredients, such as sweeteners, are generally recognized as safe (“GRAS”), they do not require FDA approval as a food additive. (13)
GRAS ingredient vs. food additive
This is huge, because the “approval as a food additive” process is a grueling, time-consuming one.
But if the product is considered an ingredient and has the GRAS designation, all that legal & scientific proof of safety rigmarole is avoided and it’s “fire-up-the-factory time, boys”.
And thus, the GRAS ruling opened the floodgates for stevia’s mass production in the U.S.’s mainstream food industry as a sweetener.
Is stevia natural?
The FDA says the stevia companies can tell you it is natural, and whether you agree or not is up to you.
The people who are vocally disagreeing with stevia’s natural status base their opinion on the harsh chemicals & processes that are used to make it.
What natural means to the FDA
Part of this is because the FDA’s enforcement –or lack of– their definition (below) allows manufacturers some wiggle room:
“The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” (14)
Sounds good, but look at this product with the word Naturals in big letters on its label, then read the ingredients list.
Images taken from my article Misleading Food Labels.
Then re-read the FDA’s definition of “natural” about not allowing artificial ingredients or color additives.
Except for the grapefruit, all of the ingredients are artificial, & there’s a color additive in it too.
Bottom line: That’s a good example of how the term Natural is regulated by the FDA.
Stevia’s natural controversy
With stevia, the leaves go through hell to become a white powder as you saw, but no ‘artificial’ ingredients are added to it.
So it’s still considered natural to the FDA, because they don’t have an issue with all of the chemicals that the stevia is drenched with along the way from leaf to powder.
Read a bit more on their Natural policy:
“However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation.” (15)
So the FDA does not ‘address food processing or manufacturing methods’, which is exactly where all those harsh purification chemicals are used when making stevia powder.
My 2¢ on whether stevia’s natural
It doesn’t taste natural to me, and I’ve experienced it in over a dozen protein powders & ‘super greens’ powders.
I also don’t like the way the overpowering stevia taste makes my mouth feel for hours after drinking it…hard to describe, but it just lingers in there, all weird.
Like I mentioned earlier, processed stevia tastes nothing like it did back when I was chewing the leaves I picked off my plant.
There are no slam-dunk proven health benefits that come from using stevia, other than the fact that you are likely avoiding sugar when consuming a stevia-sweetened product.
There have been a few studies conducted that showed some small improvements in a few areas, but research on this food product is very thin & inconclusive at this point.
Below are some of the health issues where stevia may end up providing benefit, keeping in mind that current research evidence is nowhere close to being considered strong.
The numbered links go to the clinical study I’m referencing, and open up in a separate tab if you need your science fix for the day 😄.
Stevia & diabetes
* A review of a handful of research studies on humans showed that stevia has no effect on blood glucose or insulin, unlike the sugar it’s being substituted for. (16)
*A stevia trial using rats found it lowered glucose levels while boosting insulin sensitivity. (17)
Stevia & weight management
*In theory at least, swapping out sugar for stevia seems like a no-brainer when it comes to trying to lose weight, or to control one’s weight gain issues.
*Per the U.S. Dept. of Health, the typical American diet is 16% sugar, and that’s bad since sugar’s tied to weight gain, obesity, & a bucket of health woes. (18)
*Unfortunately (& perhaps surprisingly), the medical research data does not support the theory that zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia contribute to weight loss.
There was a huge review of clinical trials & studies totaling in the neighborhood of nearly ½ million people over a 10+ year period. (19)
The researchers stated that the evidence shows that people switching to zero-calorie sweeteners either:
- didn’t subsequently lose any weight;
- actually gained weight as a result.
Stevia & cholesterol
*A human trial using a high-dose of concentrated stevia extract daily for one month demonstrated improved cholesterol levels (more HDL ‘good’, less LDL ‘bad’), & improved triglyceride levels. (20)
However no significant studies have been published saying that these beneficial effects appear if lower (& more normal) amounts of stevia are taken.
Stevia & cancer
*Stevia has antioxidant compounds in it, and some antioxidants have the ability to beat down cancer cells & free radicals. (37)
*And stevia just so happens to have an antioxidant in it named kaempferol, which has shown the ability to
“reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer by 23 percent.” (22)
No studies have confirmed this theory however.
*A lab test (AKA in vitro) showed steviol
“intensively inhibits proliferation of the gastrointestinal cancer cells.” (23)
No human studies have been done to confirm this.
Stevia & high blood pressure
However, more recent & better run studies disagree, finding instead that stevia provides no blood pressure improvement. (25)
Stevia side effects
Pure stevia powder causes no short-term side effects.
The issue is that many of the big-name stevia producers add other ingredients like sugar alcohols that give some people gastrointestinal distress.
There are no studies of possible side effects associated with long-term stevia use.
Pure stevia side effects
There are no documented reports of pure stevia causing any acute or chronic side effects. (26)
Note that I emphasized the word pure.
Big stevia brands add things to stevia
I pointed out pure because the manufacturers of the most widely-known stevia products add things to their stevia products.
And some of those things are known agents of the digestive blues, like sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols are known to bother some people more than others, and side effects include bloating, diarrhea, cramps, & nausea. (27)
Stevia side effects: my 2¢
The only side effect I notice is that my mouth and taste buds just feel something weird lingering in there for hours, as I mentioned earlier.
It’s hard to describe, but definitely noticeable to a sensitive dude like me.
I also notice (& can tell the difference between) the two main artificial sweeteners in the fitness industry, sucralose & acesulfame potassium.
But they don’t hang around in my mouth as long, nor make it feel strange like stevia does.
I don’t get why the protein product manufacturers that use stevia don’t just cut the amount they put in; after all, the stuff’s plenty strong already.
Is stevia healthy & safe?
Medical authorities & the FDA assert that stevia is safe to consume.
Here are a few quotes from said medical & nutrition experts.
American Council on Exercise
“…it seems safe to say that when consumed in reasonable amounts, stevia may be an exceptional natural plant-based sugar substitute.” (29)
“Are stevia sweeteners safe to consume? YES.” (30)
“Stevia has been shown to be safe in more than 200 studies.” (31)
“An extensive toxicological database on steviol glycosides has been evaluated by several government authorities who concluded that there is no evidence of genotoxicity, carcinogenicity, or reproductive/developmental toxicity. (32)
-from the Encyclopedia of Food Safety
Review of 9 best-selling stevia products
In this section I review the top selling brands in the stevia marketplace today.
I’ll compare the purity levels of their flagship products by way of combing through their respective ingredients lists, and provide buyer ratings as well.
None are pure stevia products
All of them use some sort of filler/carrier/additional sweetener, and that’s why you’ll see that stevia is not the #1 ingredient by weight in any of them.
I’ve included screenshots of their ingredients lists so you can check them out for yourself.
Pure stevia is unpalatable for most people
Pure stevia products are simply too bitter for the majority of the population to handle. (34)
The compounds in the stevia extract can trigger both our sweet & bitter taste buds, making it tough to deal with.
Stevia producers add sweeteners & fillers
So manufacturers have been playing around with their formulas since getting the green light from the FDA in 2008 to produce & market stevia to the public.
Your choice as a consumer is to decide which carrier, filler, &/or additional sweetener you’re OK with taking.
Here are the common ones:
Erythritol – sugar alcohol
Dextrose – a simple sugar made from corn
Maltodextrin – a corn/rice starch
Water – for the liquid stevia products
(To check current price &/or read buyer reviews on Amazon, click on the pic or the product name; it’ll open in a separate tab.)
4.8⭐ 97% 4& 5-star reviews, 3000+ online reviews
4.7⭐ 92% 4& 5-star reviews, 4000+ online reviews
*Dextrose, a sugar made from corn, is the #1 ingredient by weight.
*I included their explanation why that is; just note that dextrose is dirt cheap to produce, so this shouldn’t be one of the more expensive brands. (36)
4.7⭐ 92% 4& 5-star reviews, 3000+ online reviews
4.6⭐ 90% 4& 5-star reviews, 3000+ online reviews
4.6⭐ 89% 4& 5-star reviews, 2000+ online reviews
*Good luck trying to find a published Nutrition Facts label of this before you buy it, unless you go to a store & read it with yourself.
All of their product images omit or partially hide the nutrition information. 😳
*Original ingredients (see my image) had Natural Flavors listed, but new image on Amazon looks like there’s only maltodextrin & stevia extract.
*Maltodextrin is a corn/rice starch used as a filler here; also used as a high-carbohydrate source in mass gainer protein powders.
*Natural Flavors again.
4.6⭐ 89% 4& 5-star reviews, 7000+ online reviews
*Natural Flavors again.
4.6⭐ 88% 4& 5-star reviews, 4000+ online reviews
*Deionized water is the 1st ingredient, it’s used to suspend the stevia.
4.6⭐ 88% 4& 5-star reviews, 1000+ online reviews
4.8⭐ 97% 4& 5-star reviews, 3000+ online reviews
*Inulin is the #1 ingredient, and it’s a dietary fiber from vegetable roots & rhizomes, often chicory plant.
I hope that my article on processed stevia is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.