Ask Allison: What is Stevia?

Stevia: the sweet, plant-derived sugar substitute that's causing a debate in the nutrition world. In this article, I break down everything you need to know about stevia so you can feel confident making nutrition choices on your own. 


A: Stevia is a zero calorie sugar substitute derived from the stevia plant, which is native to South America. Unlike other calorie free sweeteners, since stevia is extracted from a plant, it is considered to be the only sugar substitute that is both natural and calorie free. Even though stevia has just begun to gain popularity in supermarkets and common households, the stevia plant has actually been used for sweetening drinks and medicines since the 16th century. The leaves on the stevia plant contain many different chemical compounds called steviol glycosides – which are the sweet components of a stevia plant that are isolated, purified and used for sweetening. 

These chemical compounds give off a sweetness taste between 250 and 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Having such a high sweetness profile, it takes a smaller amount of stevia to acquire the same level of sweetness as table sugar. Therefore, you need less stevia in a recipe that calls for sugar to achieve the equivalent sweetness level.


A: Stevia leaves are harvested and the steviol glycosides are extracted from the stevia leaf, filtered, and then purified for consumption. This is  very similar in process for obtaining vanilla from a vanilla bean. The sweet molecules in the stevia plant are extracted by crushing and steeping  the dried leaves in water, then separating and purifying the best tasting steviol glycosides. The steps in extracting steviol glycoside include:

1. Crushing the leaves.

2. Extracting steviol glycosides with water.

3. Filtering and separating the liquid steviol glycosides from the plant materials.

4. Further purifying the extract with water or food grade alcohol.

5. Drying the extract for obtaining high purity stevia leaf extract.

*Purification is vital for observing the safety standards for food and beverage use.


Yes, stevia has been labeled Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In order for a new food or beverage ingredient to enter the U.S. food supply, the ingredient must either be a FDA approved food additive or  GRAS. GRAS is a term used by the FDA for deeming any substance, intentionally added to food, that has been adequately shown to be safe  after various quality evidence based research.

In December of 2008, the USDA stated that highly purified stevia extract sweeteners that contain 95% or more steviol glycosides are generally  recognized as safe and can be sold in the market.


A: When consumption of stevia occurs, the body is unable to absorb the steviol glycosides within the gastrointestinal tract. As the stevia  passes through the stomach and colon, bacteria breaks down the steviol glycosides into smaller molecules of steviol. Steviol is then  metabolized in the liver and ultimately excreted through the urine. This results in an inability to provide any energy, also known as calories,  to the body. With no accumulation of stevia during metabolism, it can, therefore, be considered calorie free.

Even though this is true, just because sugar is replaced by stevia doesn’t automatically mean a person will lose weight. For example, just  because a person baked cupcakes made with stevia doesn’t make it acceptable to eat ten. It is important to understand the additional  unhealthy qualities within that cupcake such as fat, butter, and refined grains will inhibit someone from reaching their goals.


A: As we have learned, stevia is calorie free, therefore, it does not affect blood sugar levels. Without containing carbohydrates, stevia is a great recommendation for diabetes management. Additionally, stevia is known for having a glycemic index of zero. The Glycemic index is a numbered scale from 0-100 that determines how quickly sugar enters the bloodstream in the body. A low glycemic index, what a person strives to achieve, has a value of less than 55 and a high glycemic index is over 70. Although studies have found that stevia does trigger an insulin response, it does not have an affect on blood glucose levels. This insulin response caused by stevia is not the same as table sugar.

While stevia is a great supplement for people with diabetes, anyone can use stevia as part of a heart healthy diet to maintain weight or lose  weight due to its calorie free properties.Studies have concluded that pregnant women and children can also consume reasonable amounts of  stevia without any adverse side effects.While current research provides a positive view on stevia, further research continues to be conducted as  it is still a relatively new sweetener.


A: Stevia comes in many different brands and forms on the market. Stevia can come in a liquid form and a granulated or powdered form.  Always check the ingredient lists because some stevia brands contain added ingredients which can be misleading when searching for stevia. The purpose of these added ingredients are to tone down the intensity of sweetness from pure stevia extract.

Added ingredients can include sugar alcohols, the most common being erythritol, starches such as dextrose and maltodextrin, and plant fibers  such as agave inulin. 

Brand(s) that contain the sugar alcohol, erythritol: Truvia and Pyure

Brand(s) that contain dextrose: Stevia in the Raw 

Brand(s) that contain agave inulin: Wholesome Organic Stevia SweetLeaf Liquid Stevia Drops contain only purified water,  stevia leaf extract, and natural flavors.


A: Artificial sweeteners are made up of molecules that do not exist in nature, unlike stevia which is derived from a plant. There have been  numerous studies with conflicting evidence on the effects of artificial sweeteners. Some studies show that regular use of artificial sweeteners  reduces a person’s intake of calories and promotes weight loss or maintenance. Other research has shown no effect on intake or weight.  Overall, artificial sweeteners are manmade and chemically modified and should be avoided when wanting to live a healthy lifestyle.


A: Sugar alcohols are neither a sugar nor an alcohol. Sugar alcohols are altered by adding hydrogen atoms to sugar. The chemical structure of    a sugar alcohol partially resembles carbohydrates and partially resembles alcohol, although it does not contain ethanol which is found in alcoholic drinks. While sugar alcohols are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, products such as sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol    are chemically processed by altering the natural sugar found in these fruits and vegetables. If the sugar alcohol is natural, like in an orange, it is more than appropriate to consume. Although, if you see a health bar with a laundry list of ingredients and a sugar alcohol is one of them,  it is most likely processed and you should stay away.

About the Author:

Allison is a Licensed and Registered Dietitian at fit-flavors, a restaurant in St. Louis, MO, that serves healthy meals to go.  The meals are designed by a Licensed and Registered Dietitian, personal trainer, and team of professional chefs for the ideal balance between  nutrition and flavor to keep your waistline tight, your brain focused, and your mouth watering. They source the highest quality ingredients  available to create healthy prepared meals that are perfect for your busy lifestyle. Each meal is individually weighed and measured for portion  control, then sold fresh so you can simply heat and eat amid your crazy schedule. Learn more about fit-flavors.