The leaves of a stevia plant.

Q. I often see foods labeled 'no artificial sweeteners,' even though stevia is in the ingredients list. What gives?

A. Stevia is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and has no calories. It comes from a plant, so some consider it a "natural,"rather than an artificial, sweetener. (Aspartame and sucralose, by contrast, are wholly cooked up in a lab.)

More on Healthy Eating

However, to make stevia, its sweet-tasting compounds—called steviol glycosides—are extracted from the plant leaves and purified. (The Food and Drug Administration doesn't allow the leaves themselves to be used in food.) This can be done with water or alcohol, but sometimes the extracts are modified with enzymes. In addition, the glycosides can also be made using yeast that has been genetically engineered.

"Not only does the Food and Drug Administration not regulate the term 'no artificial sweeteners,' but the term 'natural' also lacks any regulatory definition, so manufacturers can use the claim as they wish," says Charlotte Vallaeys, M.S., senior policy analyst for food and nutrition at CR. "The starting material for stevia extracts may be natural, but these ingredients are highly processed." Also know that evidence that stevia aids in weight loss or lowering blood sugar levels is very limited.  

For more food and health-related information, check our Food & Nutrition page.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.