Stevia, Monk Fruit, & Xylitol - Good or Bad?
With the keto diet trend still mostly in vogue (although it’s likely on its way out as per the dietary cycle turnover we’ve become accustomed to), there has been an increase in the use of zero to low calorie sweeteners that are proclaimed as great options for reducing calories and staying away from sugar.
While staying away from excess sugar is a good thing, it doesn’t mean all these new sweeteners instantly get a healthy checkmark. Among the most popular are stevia, monk fruit extract, and xylitol, all of which we are going to explore today.
First up, stevia.
Stevia has become quite the sweetener as of late, as it is sourced from the leaf of a plant. It takes sweet on the tongue, and small amounts are needed to bake. Plus, it contains no sugar. A win-win, right?
Stevia contains chemicals called steviol glycosides. There are ten of them total that contribute to stevia's sweet taste. Green leaf stevia products contain all ten while purified and modified forms isolate one or two of these steviol glycosides thereby denaturing the natural product.
There is evidence to show that high amounts of stevia can contribute to female fertility issues (the study was done in rats), hormonal imbalances, and may have an impart on gene mutation (which could increase the risk of cancer). However, this would require a very large consumption of stevia.
What does this mean for stevia lovers? Limit your usage and make sure that you are using the pure green leaf extract that is the leaves of the stevia plant. Do NOT use some modified or white form of stevia (namely Truvia). This is NOT the same as pure stevia (although it claims to be).
Next, we have monk fruit, which, in its whole form, is a small round fruit native to China. It contains compounds call mogrosides which give it the sweet taste. These mogrosides aren’t absorbed in the small intestine, hence why they contain zero calories. However, we are still unsure of how much of an impact that makes on our overall gut microbiome.
Monk fruit extract is about 150-300 times sweeter than sugar, and most studies completed on it have been done on the actual whole monk fruit itself, rather than the extract. Remember that to get the monk fruit extract, quite a process is used including chemicals among other agents.
When choosing monk fruit extract, I always recommend buying organic and keeping the only ingredient as monk fruit extract. You will have better luck with these parameters with a granulated form of monk fruit rather than liquid.
Lastly, we turn to xylitol. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is naturally occurring in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, but has been refined and purified for use a sweetener.
Like other sugar alcohols, xylitol is incompletely absorbed in the intestine, and are fermentable sugars, which means they feed gut bacteria. This is why we can often experience digestive-related issues after eating these sugar alcohols (dose dependent as well). There is evidence these sugar alcohols could be feeding the bad bacteria as well, contributing to an imbalanced gut microbiome, but this is inconclusive as there is some evidence that xylitol can fight again yeast like candida. Of note – xylitol is toxic to dogs.
If you are looking at xylitol, you’ll find it in granulated form where that should be the only ingredient. Preferably, buy a birch-derived xylitol product.
While all of this information might make these three sweeteners seem like amazing options, always consider these points.
First, there is plenty of evidence to show that when we consume sweet foods that don’t contain calories, it often increases cravings and leads to overeating. The reason for these effects is twofold. When we eat a food that’s sugar-free or low-calorie, we subconsciously (or consciously) give ourselves a “free pass” to eat more later in the day because we were “good” and cut back on calories. Conversely, when our body senses a sweet taste over and over, it starts to develop palate for the super sweet and makes naturally sweet foods like strawberries become bland and bitter by comparison, leaving us reaching for more and more sweetener.
Second, none of these sweeteners contain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Sweeteners like raw honey, pure maple syrup, and black strap molasses not only do contain trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, but they have also been used for centuries for sweeteners and medicine in certain situations. Instead, you’ll often find stevia, monk fruit, or xylitol used in a processed food product that has artificial vitamins and minerals added to it. Our bodies deserve better than that!
Finally, real, whole food always wins. While there is sometimes a time and place for these low-to-no calorie sweeteners, the answer is not every day and in every food. Building our plate around animal protein, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables is always the answer with small amounts of sweeteners added in. Strike this balance, and your body will thank you!