The Stevia Deception: The Hidden Dangers of Low-Calorie Sweeteners
By Dr. Bruce Fife
I hope you are not enticed by the phrase “low calorie,” and you know that anything synthesized in a lab before being added to your food is grounds for suspicion. However, if you still believe, like millions around the globe, that man-made sugar substitutes are better for you than the real thing, then read this book—and for your health’s sake, please read it soon.
Though titled The Stevia Deception, the book not only gives spine-tingling (if not tongue-tingling) data about stevia but also discusses other artificial sweeteners. However, Dr. Fife’s main focus is on stevia because it has been so heavily marketed as a natural, innocuous sugar alternative.
Many people believe that because it derives from a plant (Stevia rebaudiana), stevia must be safe. Some studies even claim desirable health benefits. Thousands of anecdotal observations, as well as independently funded studies, reveal the truth. Certain peoples, such as the Guarani in South America, have used stevia leaf for over a thousand years, but the leaves they traditionally chewed or used in teas as a mild sweetener or for medicinal purposes (and even as a contraceptive) are not comparable to the additive now found in thousands of foods and beverages, touted as a dieter’s “dream come true.”
Industry extracts stevia derivatives, called steviol glycosides, with crystallization techniques that primarily use ethanol or methanol as a solvent. The active compound in brands such as Truvia (made by Cargill) and Pure Via is called rebaudioside A (“Reb-A”). Up to three hundred times sweeter than sucrose, it can have a bitter aftertaste—perhaps a metaphor for its deleterious aftereffects on the human body. Because of the unpleasant aftertaste, companies often combine steviol glycosides with other sweeteners. Truvia, for example, includes erythritol, a sugar alcohol. While Cargill and its paid scientists would claim this is just a harmless way to make your treats taste yummier, independent studies—including one inspired by a school science fair project—present alarming findings. A fruit fly study found that a diet with Truvia shortened the flies’ average life span from sixty to just under six days—a reduction of 90 percent! No other sweetener had such a drastic effect. I’m not a fruit fly or a scientist, but after seeing a graph like that, I would use Truvia as an insecticide rather than a food additive.
Stevia and other zero- or low-calorie sweeteners are publicized as a “have your cake and eat it, too” alternative for diabetics and those looking to lose weight or avoid sugar’s harmful effects. As largely synthetic substances, they are not fully metabolized and are excreted without adding nutritive caloric content. People assume that no calories means no weight gain, but as we have discovered, the human body is far more complex than the rudimentary calories-to-pounds model used to mislead the public.
One reason why stevia and other artificial sweeteners not only do not lead to weight loss but actually can lead to weight gain and blood sugar dysregulation is because the taste buds in the mouth (and the taste buds in the gastrointestinal [GI] tract) are primed to release insulin when they sense sweetness. When the insulin is released but no accompanying calories are found, it is like—to use Fife’s metaphor—someone ringing a doorbell over and over, prompting a cascade of events without the requisite counterpart to complete the cycle. This problem, as well as the difficulty the human body has with metabolizing steviol, causes a long list of potential negative outcomes, both short-term (gas and bloating) and long-term (mutagenic effects leading to cancer). Also, like any other sweet substance, it can be dangerously addictive.
Fife, a naturopathic doctor and author of over twenty books on nutrition and health topics, originally believed that stevia was a desirable alternative to sugar and other sweeteners. However, he grew alarmed when hearing reports of miscarriages, addiction, inability to lose weight and a plethora of other side effects ranging from skin rashes to headaches to GI upset. After learning how stevia extracts are produced and delving into the animal studies that show toxicity potentials, he changed his tune. He now claims that stevia should not be thought of as a benign or beneficial herbal sweetener but as an artificial sweetener as per his four criteria: does not occur in nature in its present form; has a high-intensity sweet taste (many times sweeter than sucrose); provides no significant calories; and has been linked to issues such as insulin resistance, inflammation, weight gain, slowed metabolism and changes in the gut microbiome. Upsetting the delicate balance of gut bacteria can lead to an overgrowth of the kind that can cause weight gain and poor health.
Giving you the “What do I do about it?” answer that we are all looking for, Fife recommends small amounts of the truly natural, whole-food sweeteners also espoused by WAPF—items such as date sugar, Sucanat (unrefined cane sugar), maple syrup, honey and coconut sugar. If people in your circle are still reaching for brightly colored tabletop packets of artificial sweetener or mistakenly believes that stevia extract is harmless or even helpful, do them a big favor and send them the link to or a copy of this book. An easy-enough read and full of references to supporting studies, it is sufficiently convincing that these highly processed, concentrated extracts have huge potential health risks. In a world chock-full of gimmicks and industry-funded propaganda, the hard truth still eludes many people. There is no such thing as a sweet treat that has zero repercussions—it’s just not how nature or the human body work. Learn the pleasures of a little raw honey with your herbal tea, and leave the fake stuff on the shelf. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2023🖨️ Print post