A friend asks:
About 2 years ago, I gave up my heavy diet pepsi habit. I've moved off of most processed foods, so nowadays, the majority of my non-fruit sugar intake comes from baked goods, and the sugar I put into my cups ‘o tea. So, I recently read about Stevia, plant-extract based sweetener, that, in the formulation I saw, is mixed with malodextrin to provide bulk. On the one hand, it might be a way to cut out 6 tsp a day of sugar. On the other, I remain suspicious of any artificial sweetener, no matter what its origin. What do you recommend?
– Getting Healthy in the Mountains
Before I jump in with an answer, I want to put the question in context by asking you a couple of questions:
- What are your goals in reducing sugar consumption? Weight loss? Current health conditions? Prevention of future health conditions? Adherence to a particular diet/lifestyle philosophy? Clearing mental fog?
- What does the rest of your diet look like? Barring a particular food allergy or sensitivity, the overall dietary pattern is far more important than the substitution of one food for another. For overall health and weight control, I’d be much more concerned about the milk in your tea than the sugar.
Now, to the facts.
Some Facts About Stevia
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Stevia has not been found to be harmful in humans at least not since big companies like Cargill and Coca Cola started using it and influencing policy with their dollars.
The FDA had raised health concerns about stevia back in the 1990s when only fringe companies like Hain Celestial were using it (and that despite over 900 studies showing no harmful effects).
They haven’t evaluated the stevia plant itself, but have listed a number of derivative products deemed GRAS (generally regarded as safe).
Now for the potential bad news. Japanese researchers found that the active ingredient in stevia, steviosides, is totally harmless, but gets converted into steviol by the intestinal bacteria of lab rats.
Steviol was shown to cause huge spikes in DNA mutation, making it a pro forma carcinogen. Scientists have recently (last 8 years) found that humans have the same bacteria in our guts, so it’s assumed that we also turn stevia into carcinogenic compounds that are released into our bloodstreams.
As with most carcinogens, there appears to be a threshold level that produced negligible harm. The World Health Organization has given this amount as 1.8mg per pound of body weight. So a 200 pound person can safely consume 360mg per day, according to the WHO. According to the nutrition label on SweetLeaf, one packet equals one gram.
I don’t know how much of that is maltodextrin and how much is active stevia, so take that advice with a grain of, well, salt.
Cancer is More than Gene Mutations
And DNA mutation, while a step in the progression of cancer, is not the only step, and may not in fact be the primary cause. Once cancer is initiated, it still has to grow, and here the overall dietary pattern can determine whether it does or not. For more on cancer progression, check out The China Study by my friend, mentor, and collaborator T. Colin Campbell.
That said, it’s almost impossible to correlate individual foods with harm in humans. Not because certain foods aren’t harmful, but because of the difficulties in carrying out the research. What are they eating instead? How much are they eating? Can we believe their food logs and dietary recall journals? Might the food be OK for a subset of the population? Etc etc.
Now, back to your specific question.
Aim for 95% Excellence
6 teaspoons of sugar is roughly 100 calories, or 5% of a 2000 calorie per day diet. (As a big strong active guy, your caloric requirements may be higher, so adjust these calculations accordingly.)
I tell my clients to aim for 95% dietary excellence, meaning whole, minimally processed foods of plant origin: whole grains, other starches, veggies, fruits, beans, and small amounts of nuts and seeds.
The other 5% is up to them: pastured raised meat a couple times a week, a glass of wine, a piece of cake, etc.
Because of the wide-ranging health problems associated with diary, I strongly recommend that milk and cheese be eliminated entirely.
Most people who have done so, and use soy or almond milk in their hot beverages, tell me that the transition period was short, and they enjoy their beverages more now that the milk doesn’t overpower the base flavor.
Life is Full of Risks
It’s better to eliminate the daily 6 teaspoons of sugar in the same way that it’s better to avoid driving and flying, or playing ice hockey. There are risks and rewards, and it’s up to each of us to determine the relative weight of each.
If you really love your tea, then deal with the 100 calories of sugar. If you can enjoy it sweetened with stevia extract (try the liquid version with a dropper; as far as I know, it’s got no maltodextrin and maybe a bit less of an aftertaste), then go for it.
Is it Just Nice, or is it an Addiction?
Now to the emotional aspect of your question. When we are unwilling to eliminate a particular food or substance or behavior, and feel our hackles rise when we are asked to consider it, that’s a sign of a dependency.
If tea with milk and sugar is just a nice part of your day, that’s one thing.
But if sugar in particular calls to you on an hourly basis, and you spend a lot of time fighting that call (and losing often enough to encourage the sugar to keep trying), then switching to stevia is going to be a painful affair with sugar’s less attractive sister.
You won’t be satisfied, but you’ll be reminded of what you’ve given up with every tryst.
Better to quit entirely than subject yourself to that sort of self-flagellation.
Hope this helps…