What’s Really Going On With Stevia?

On paper, stevia seems like a pretty amazing thing. First of all, it’s many times sweeter than sugar. Plus, it contains no calories. Finally, the natural plant extract has a remarkably long history of use in South America.

And, for these reasons, it’s understandable that stevia has enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity over the past few years. But, the truth is that there are still quite a few things we have yet to fully understand about stevia, how it works, and whether or not it’s actually safe to use.

Well…That’s Weird

Foremost among the questions surrounding stevia is this: If the sweetener is indeed calorie-free, then why have studies shown that it has an impact on blood sugar? But that’s not even the strange part. Unlike other sweet things, stevia doesn’t raise your blood sugar levels. It lowers them.

Which really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Or, at least, it didn’t until a recent study unraveled all of this. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications found that stevia extract stimulates a very specific protein channel called TRPM5. Apart from having a pretty remarkably challenging name, this protein is responsible for both sweet and bitter tastes. Which explains why stevia tends to have a bitter aftertaste despite being so very sweet initially.

But TRPM5 also tells your pancreas that it’s time to release more insulin, which then lowers blood sugar levels.

Interestingly, the same body of research found that when mice were purposely put on a high-fat diet, the TRPM5-rich stevia extract protected them from developing diabetes.

Not All Great

Again, stevia seems pretty fantastic. It’s important to point out, though, that stevia has had a bit of a rocky history with the FDA and struggled to gain approval.

One of the greatest causes for concern came in 2008 when a study was published that linked stevia with an increased risk of developing certain forms of cancer. These findings, though, were limited to test tubes and animal studies, not human trials.

Still, there are skeptics who point out that people are eating an unprecedented amount of stevia and maintaining this habit for years. And there are no studies into the long-term effects of high levels of stevia.

Really, the trick seems to be moderation. If you absolutely need something sweet, stevia does seem like a viable option – particularly for people who are dealing with diabetes or a risk thereof.