Stevia photo
Photo by M. Martin Vicente

Is Stevia Paleo?

Stevia has been touted as a low-carb alternative to sugar in our foods and a “natural” way to satisfy a sweet tooth. However, questions still linger about whether it’s a Paleo-friendly food and how it might affect blood sugar- or if it should even be a part of an evolutionary diet.
One of 240 species of herbaceous plants grown in sub-tropical and tropical America, the stevia we use to sweeten comes from the stevia rebaudiana plant and its leaves.  The plant can be grown and used raw and unprocessed as a tea or with tea (also often called “green” stevia). When processed, it’s dried and powdered and looks like many of the familiar sugar substitutes on store shelves, or it’s available in a less-refined liquid extract form.
So, is it Paleo?
While stevia is plant-based, gluten free, and low on the glycemic index, in relation to other sweeteners, it’s not perfect. Some studies have shown that stevioside, the dominant glycoside in stevia, acts directly on pancreatic cells to stimulate insulin output. Since most Paleo advocates warn against unnecessary insulin spikes, it would give cause to potentially stay away from stevia.  However, the findings were not conclusive, because they were done only in a highly-controlled lab environment and did not factor in any data from animals or humans eating the stevia in a natural, organic way.

On the flip side, there’s also growing evidence that stevia is an insulin sensitizer and can assist post-meal glucose tolerance and clearance. Some studies have shown that compared to both sucrose and aspartame eaters, stevia eaters showed much lower insulin levels after meals, plus consumption of the stevia did not stimulate appetite later in the day—a sign that it supported stable blood sugar and satiety.

Other minor benefits that stevia may provide, as evidenced by several small studies, include its possible assistance in the reduction of arterial plaque and potential anti-hypertensive effects at certain doses.

Because the jury isn’t quite out yet on whether stevia is a big Paleo thumbs up (or down), it’s no surprise there’s still variance in how or if it should be eaten.  Some voices in the Paleo community readily accept and support stevia’s use, while others say nay depending on its form and processing. Some even say it’s not ideal and to stay away.

What do the Paleo gurus say?

Mark Sisson says“We can think about stevia as a Primal sugar alternative with some potentially therapeutic effects. Kind of like cinnamon or turmeric, we don’t consume it for the calories or as literal fuel for our bodies, but for flavor, variety, and, possibly, the health benefits. I’m a fan of the stuff and recommend it as a Primal way to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Diane Sanfilippo says“I don’t recommend any stevia that’s white—the green powder or extract here or there is probably okay.”

Dallas and Melissa Hartwig say“We don’t really say that stevia would be a good choice. We just say that it would be less bad considering it’s plant-based and available without additives or chemical processing. If you have to use one of those, we’d say something like stevia or pure organic honey or maple syrup would be a less bad option. But clearly not ideal and to break those habits and cravings and patterns, you really want to stay away from all of that stuff in our opinion.”

Conclusion?

It’s a Paleo maybe – there’s no clear definition about whether stevia is fit for the Paleo palate, but it is plant-based and certainly is a better choice than sucrose and artificial sweeteners. In general, experts say that if you’re going to use it, make it the unprocessed form (or extract) and use it in discretionary amounts when you need to sweeten a food or beverage for variety or flavor.

Issue No. 26

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