For years now, stevia has been hailed as a miracle sweetener by weight loss gurus, fitness fanatics, and muscle maniacs everywhere. However, it is not a miracle for acne patients. In fact, it may be the opposite.
Stevia itself is a broad species of herbaceous plants that’s over 250 members strong. The specific one we’re concerned with is stevia rebaudiana, which grows in South and tropical America. The global stevia market sold 3500 tons of produce in 2010 and since then that’s shot up by a staggering 30% to hit 4670 tons. In 2015 alone stevia sales increased by 14%.
Why? Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener. Like erythritol or other sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol, it provides the sweet flavour of sugar without actually being sugar…
…and that makes it a hot commodity these days. Fear of tooth-rotting, brain-destroying and acne causing sugar is running rampant and many are turning to sugar free sweeteners. Combine that with a love of all things natural and stevia becomes a goldmine. Diabetics are particularly fond of stevia because it doesn’t spike blood sugar at all.
Then there’s the purported medicinal properties. There’s many studies finding the stevia has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant boosting properties. In particular, stevia has been shown in studies on hypertensive people to lower blood pressure substantially.
That’s all well and good, but is stevia safe for acne patients?
The advantages of stevia
Firstly, the lack of sugar is an undeniable advantage for acne.
If you’ve read many articles on this website then you’ll surely know of sugar’s monstrous acne powers. Added sugar is the most inflammatory food ingredient in the world. If you’ve ever wondered why sweet treats like chocolate break you out with acne, then the sugar was to blame.
One soft drink can spike some inflammatory chemicals behind acne by over 100%. Some foods are particularly bad; as I discuss in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne, fructose is a form of sugar that’s twice as bad for acne as regular glucose.
Hence, it’s always a smart idea to minimise your sugar intake. All sugars provide their delightful sweet taste by binding to and stimulating the sweet receptors in your tongue. Sugar has near exclusive rights to those receptors. The sweetness in foods we eat is almost entirely sugar derived whether it’s from honey, fruit, processed chocolate or agave nectar…
…but there are a few exceptions. The leaves of stevia rebaudiana are sweet, but contain only trace quantities of sugar.
Instead, stevia is rich in glycosides, a rare family of plant compounds that can also bind to your sweet receptors. The main glycosides in stevia are rebaudiosides and steviosides. These compounds contain absolutely no sugar, but still, they are 350 and 250 times sweeter than sugar respectively.
Stevia is not a copy and paste sugar substitute; it has over 100 other natural compounds that have been identified so far. The leaves are known for their bitter flavour, as well as a liquorice flavoured aftertaste. But stevia comes pretty close. The Guaraní people of Paraguay have been blending the leaves into teas and medicines for 1500 years now.
Therefore, stevia can provide the pleasure of sweetness without the inflammatory acne of sugar.
That’s one clear benefit for an acne patient and there’s another: stevia’s much hyped medicinal properties. Again, there’s over 100 identified compounds and that gives stevia leaves a lot of nutritional power, which can potentially cure acne. The sweet steviosides are especially well documented in studies, particularly for lowering blood pressure.
Stevia’s acne-related powers include…
Increased antioxidants – in this 2010 study, scientists fed 34 mice either a placebo or a stevioside supplement for 12 weeks. The scientists observed big increases in superoxide dismutase 1, SOD2, and SOD3, all of which are antioxidants manufactured by the body. They also found that oxidised LDL cholesterol concentrations were down. Clearly, there was increased antioxidant protection going on. The scientists thus concluded that: “Stevioside treatment was associated with improved antioxidant defense in both the adipose tissue and the vascular wall”.
Lowered inflammation – one study applied steviosides to human cells and examined its effects on many immune system inflammatory chemicals. Steviosides inhibited key chemicals like TNF-a, interleukin 1-beta, and interleukin-6. The scientists concluded that steviosides inhibit pro-inflammatory cytokines (pro acne) excellently.
There’s also this study from 2012 which again applied steviosides to human cells. This time, steviosides were found to inhibit the pro inflammatory chemical called NF-KappaB. This actor controls the release of many different inflammatory agents behind acne, so inhibiting it can lower inflammation very broadly. The conclusion: “These findings suggest that stevioside may be a therapeutic agent against inflammatory diseases” (which acne is).
Those are two well documented acne-advantages from stevia. Finally, we have the anecdotal tales sourced from page after page of history books.
Primitive South Americans supposedly used stevia leaves as a tonic for depression and other mental ailments. More importantly for acne patients, they reportedly ground the leaves into a pulp and disinfected wounds with it. Stevia was generally used as an anti-inflammatory dressing of sorts, for skin conditions similar to acne or swelling of the legs.
The downside – stevia completely confuses your body
It’s obvious that there’s plenty of nutrition in stevia based sweeteners which can wind up helping your acne, depending on your dietary circumstances. It’s also clear that it won’t inflame your acne like sugar. Hence, I can safely say that stevia is an acne friendly sugar substitute to use occasionally. You can add it to tea or coffee for example, if you’ve already eaten far too much sugar that day.
However, I do not recommend that you, or any other acne patient, make it an everyday part of your diet.
Why? Well, as we mentioned earlier, it’s almost always sugar that stimulates sweet receptors. When a prehistoric man or even a medieval man wanted a sugar hit, a piece of fruit or honey would be his only option. Hence, the stimulation of our sweet receptors triggers chain reactions in our body that are specifically tailored for sugar.
Your body expects blood sugar to rise when it detects sweetness. Therefore it signals your pancreas to increase production of insulin, ready to shuttle all that extra glucose into your glycogen stores. That increase occurs whenever the sweetness receptors are stimulated.
It’s a tight system millions of years in the making. A sweet taste = sugar incoming. Sugar incoming = the need for insulin to convert it to energy.
What’s the problem with stevia for acne then? Any zero calorie sweetener, whether it’s stevia, erythritol or aspartame, still triggers this insulin increase. Your body automatically believes the sweetness equals sugar. Insulin is still increased, but there’s no increase in blood sugar for it to deal with. Instead, the insulin lowers your existing glucose levels and incudes mild hypoglycaemia.
Your blood sugar levels become too low and that causes dizziness and fatigue when sustained, so your body has to deal with it. Unless a fresh supply of blood sugar immediately floods in (unlikely if you’re deliberately using a sugar-free sweetener), then the body’s solution is to increase cortisol. This cortisol sucks glucose out of energy stores in your muscles and cells to compensate.
Cortisol thus increases your blood sugar again, but what it also does is cause acne.
Cortisol is the main stress hormone; it’s the reason why you get acne when you’re stressed at work or during examinations in school. Cortisol messes with your digestive system, it can slow wound healing and thus acne healing, and inhibit the absorption of acne nutrients. Keeping cortisol low is an important strategy for all acne patients but stevia causes it to spike sharply.
Lowering blood sugar is one of stevia’s most famous health effects; that’s why diabetics love it. But if your blood sugar is already healthy then stevia will take a bad toll on your hormones and your adrenal glands. It’s enough that chronic stress is an epidemic in this day and age; you don’t want to be feasting on foods that spike cortisol as well.
One occasional spike is safe for acne, but use it in tea and coffee all day and your stress hormones will never come down. That’s especially true if you suffer from chronic stress or anxiety.
Does stevia disrupt your insulin signalling?
Furthermore, there’s another excellent reason for us acne prone-people not to eat stevia on a regular basis. According to a 2013 study discussed in a Science Friday podcast, all zero calorie sweeteners can confuse your responses to sweet foods enough so that the action of insulin is impaired.
What happens is that firstly, you eat stevia once, your blood sugar falls and cortisol increases again. You keep doing that again and again and eventually, your body learns that all this stimulation of your sweet receptors isn’t actually due to sugar at all. Hence, your body begins to wind down its automatic digestive responses. Your insulin output becomes less responsive, less digestive enzymes are secreted, and there is a general weakening of your body’s ability to process carbohydrates.
Why is this bad news for an acne patient? The problem is that as the decoupling of digestive processes from the detection of sweet flavours progresses, you lose the ability to efficiently digest sugars.
Even if you use stevia for sweet homemade treats, you still have to eat sugar in fruits and other plant based foods. When you do, your body will be so desensitised by the stevia that it can’t process the resulting blood sugar increase without acne rearing its head. Every single sugary food you eat will spike your blood sugar for far longer.
That will lead to acne indirectly as high blood sugar increases dead skin cell turnover, bodily inflammation and production of free radicals called AGEs. Sugar itself will cause more inflammation too, as your body fails to digest it as efficiently.
This decoupling process will actually make stevia itself less harmful for acne when eaten, because less insulin will mean less of a blood sugar fall and no cortisol spike. But what’s crucial is that every other carbohydrate in your diet will become more problematic. Apples, strawberries, sweet potatoes, bananas – any healthy food with sugar will be more likely to cause acne. Foods that can already cause acne, like milk, yoghurt and other forms of dairy, will become doubly harmful.
Is stevia an acne friendly sweetener?
The results of that study are only preliminary; we need more evidence. But proper functioning of insulin and digestion of sugar is so important for clearing acne that based on that one study, I’m avoiding all stevia based products.
What’s more, as stevia slowly becomes popular and infiltrates the marketplace, bad reactions, including acne, are showing up everywhere. You only have to search the internet to find reports of dizziness, headaches, stomach cramps, and heart palpitations.These signs all hint at bigger problems not yet discovered by science.
Some people believe that stevia can kill healthy bacteria in your gut. That’s bad news for your skin because impoverished gut bacteria is one of the great hidden causes of acne. There’s also many tales on the internet of severe cystic acne and pimples.
By its very nature as a zero calorie sweetener, a food which humans rarely consume and is rarely found in nature, we can’t be certain of its safety. That applies to acne and health.
Stevia has only been consumed en masse in the US since 2008 (when the FDA legalised its usage as a sweetener) so we just don’t know. Yes, it has been used for 1500 years by tribes in Paraguay, but they wouldn’t have used it every day like folks from the Paleo and Primal dietary factions always recommend.
Honey – the ultimate acne friendly sweetener
The excellent news is that the whole phenomenon of sugar fear is becoming overhyped anyway. It’s completely true that sugar causes obesity and tooth decay. It’s also completely true that sugar causes acne. Minimising it is the best strategy an acne patient could possibly follow…
…but as with any solid piece of health advice, the mainstream media has activated the hype machine and taken its recommended strategies to an extreme level. Mainstream newspapers like the British Daily Mail are inventing new diets to help you “quit sugar” totally. They’re even scaring people to fear healthy fruit like strawberries and apples.
Don’t believe that nonsense! Sugar is perfectly safe for acne at intakes below 50 grams per day. You can’t “quit sugar” and still be healthy. You have to eat some in fruit and vegetables, or you’ll miss out on a ton of acne antioxidants, acne minerals, acne vitamins, and acne phytonutrients. Even herbs and spices contain sugar, and they’re some of the most powerful acne-clearing foods on earth.
Low quantities of sugar are safe for acne, and that means that there’s no need for stevia. Instead of wasting time trying to make stevia safe, you can enjoy some top quality raw honey.
Honey’s sweetness is entirely sugar based, but assuming you use small amounts in tea, coffee, homemade chocolate or whatever else, there are no hidden acne surprises lurking in it. Honey has been mankind’s choice of a healthy sweetener for millennia and is completely non-controversial.
Honey has just as many acne-friendly compounds as stevia. It has antibacterial peptides like bee-defensin 1, antioxidants, and famous compounds like Methylgyloxal. Honey has a far more storied medicinal history than stevia too. Wounds, burns, allergies, and bacterial infections are just some of the maladies honey can sort out. Honey has been shown in many studies to boost the antioxidant capacity of your blood and lower inflammation.
Honey also doesn’t spike your blood sugar much at all, even though it’s a sugar based sweetener. This study found that compared to standard white table sugar, AKA sucrose, honey’s effects on blood glucose were very mild. It’s likely that the glucose release is blunted by honey’s endless natural compounds.
All this is achieved without confusing your body. Honey is 80% sugar and has no nasty surprises up its sleeves, unless you’re allergic to it (which is uncommon but not unheard of). Therefore if you had to use one sweetener, then I would recommend honey in low doses.
Brown sugar or coconut sugar are also preferable to stevia for acne. Additionally, you have to make sure that your honey is raw; pasteurised honey has no acne benefits because the health-giving compounds get obliterated by the heat.
Honey also tastes fantastic compared with stevia, which has a weird liquorice aftertaste and can taste bitter. Over the last few months I’ve been using this Eco Bee Farms Raw Honey which ticks all the health requirements, has a rich flavour, and is pretty affordable too.
Your guide to acne-friendly stevia products
There’s nearly no reason from a health perspective to use stevia unless you’re diabetic, but using it once a week probably won’t weaken your insulin responses enough to cause acne. Therefore if you decide to use it, you should buy the purest, least contaminated product you can.
The first fact you have to understand is that stevia products on the market today are NOT the stevia leaf pulp which South American tribes once used.
The sweetener accounting for the vast majority of stevia products sold in the United States is Truvia. This product, which is a joint effort by the Coca Cola Company and Cargill (a massive multinational food corporation) is now the second biggest selling sweetener in the USA behind Splenda.
It’s Truvia as well as another stevia derived sweetener called PureVia which was approved as “generally recognised as safe” by the FDA back in 2008. Pure stevia leaves are still languishing in limbo.
Most stevia loving Americans are buying Truvia but why does this matter? Mainly because Truvia only contains one active ingredient from stevia. These sweeteners are not stevia at all. Instead, they just use rebaudioside A, one of the rebaudiosides in stevia that is 350 times as sweet as sugar. Read the label and you’ll discover that stevia’s official ingredients are rebiana (rebaudioside A), erythritol and “natural flavours”. Rebaudiosides are less bitter and slightly sweeter than steviosides; hence it’s favoured by food companies looking for the optimal product…
…but you might remember that it’s actually steviosides which provide most of the health benefits of stevia. All the positive studies on blood pressure, antioxidants, and inflammation were conducted using steviosides. Truvia and PureVia both contain none of them. Stevia leaves are 10% steviosides by weight, so commercial stevia is lacking the most vital part. There’s no evidence that isolated rebaudioside A is dangerous, but it’s never been shown to have its own health benefits.
Furthermore, they also contain none of stevia’s many redeeming acne compounds, like antioxidants and trace minerals. You can’t call PureVia a stevia product; it only contains one isolated compound. In fact, Cargill was actually sued in 2011 for falsely calling Truvia “natural”. It blatantly isn’t natural, and hence they settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of cash.
Therefore if you’re looking for health/acne benefits in commercial stevia products, you’re looking in the wrong place.
While the problems with insulin decoupling and cortisol spikes still stand, buying a 100% pure stevia leaf extract will make it the best for your acne it can possibly be. Also remember that while PureVia, Truvia and Enliten are the big stevia brands, many smaller brands also use rebaudioside extracts.
Stevia isn’t bad enough for acne that you have to religiously avoid it. Don’t inspect every single food label, like I recommend with trans-fats. Likewise, you don’t have to worry about asking the staff in any restaurants or coffee houses you may visit whether the food is all stevia free or not.
However, I don’t recommend that you use stevia on a regular basis, not like many natural health gurus recommend. Proper insulin functioning is so important for curing acne that I can’t recommend stevia even if the studies are only preliminary.
All of stevia’s so-called advantages fall flat when you think about it. It’s a non-inflammatory sugar alternative, but sugar is safe for acne in low doses. The nutritional benefits for acne can be obtained from a myriad of other plant foods like apples, sweet potatoes, or watermelons, none of which confuse your body in the process.
Overall, stevia should not be used by an acne patient more than once per week. That includes both natural stevia leaves and stevia derived Truvia or PureVia. You can search endlessly for the optimal stevia product but it’s far more convenient and also safer for your acne to just use raw honey.
Thanks for reading!