Cooking With Cannabis: Is Stevia Bad For You?

Jessica McKeil September 17, 2020 0 comments

Which sugar substitutes are the best for your health?

America consumes more sugar on a daily basis than any other country in the world. According to The Diabetes Foundation, the approximate daily intake of sugar for the average American is 126 grams. That adds up to over 100 pounds of sugar a year. Researchers and physicians blame sugar for the growing health crisis in the country, including rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease1)Yang, Quanhe, et al. “Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 174, no. 4, 2014, p. 516., doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563.Because of the health risks, this sweet ingredient is increasingly a taboo one, and now sugar substitutes are just as frequently found on labels as the real-deal. Stevia, agaves, and various syrups are slowly breaking sugar’s hold on our society, but are they any healthier? Let’s look at one of the most popular substitutes – is stevia bad for you?

Your cannabis edibles will likely contain lots of sugar like these cookies, but are better sweetened with that than stevia which is bad for you as well

What’s the Connection Between Cannabis and Sugar?

While it might seem odd to broach the subject of sugar from a medical cannabis perspective, consider the rising popularity of edibles. Analysts expect edible sales to reach 4 billion dollars by 2024 in the U.S. and Canada. One look at a dispensary shelf and the connection to sugar is clear. Most edibles today are brownies, cookies, candies, gummies, and soft drinks. The majority of these contain sugar.

If edibles are a patient’s chosen method for the consumption of medical cannabis, sugar could become a serious concern. So, how can patients make an edible healthier? There are potential alternative ingredients, or a person could try to make their own healthier alternatives. 

The label may make health claims about the benefits of stevia, agave, or honey, but what’s the truth? From what the current body of research tells us, not all sweeteners are equal. Sugar, no matter the form, will damage the human body if consumed in high enough quantities.

What’s the Issue With Sugar?

The granular, crystallized, white sugar baked into most cookies and pies is problematic. As a very refined product, it contains absolutely no vitamins, minerals, nor nutritional value. 

Refined sugar has a high glycemic index, sitting at 65. The glycemic index is a scale that describes how much a substance impacts blood-glucose levels. A low glycemic number means slow digestion, absorption, and metabolization. Sugars sitting higher on the index will lead to insulin spikes, and eventually diabetes.

While sweeteners with high glycemic index are worse, the main issue with any sweetener is the sheer amount that’s in the standard North American diet. Whether it’s coming from agave syrup, honey, or straight-refined cane sugar, it all has the same impact. So the question “Is stevia bad for you?” is really better asked as “Is too much stevia bad for you?”

The research clearly details how too much sugar destroys the mind and body over time. In 2014, the American Journal of Public Health described2)Leung, Cindy W., et al. “Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 104, no. 12, 2014, pp. 2425–2431., doi:10.2105/ajph.2014.302151. how a diet high in sugars rapidly speeds up the aging process. Research has also repeatedly confirmed that more dietary sugar means an increased risk of obesity (as summarized in this 2014 piece in BMJ). Too much sugar may also cause neurological decline and a higher risk for dementia, as reported in the pages of The Atlantic in 2018. 

In just about every measurement of health, sugar has a negative impact. Obviously, there is an argument for making the switch to low-sugar diets and swapping in better sugar alternatives with a low-glycemic index.

Is stevia bad for you? Yes - but Sugar like the cubes pictured, is contributing to many deaths in North America

Sugar Alternatives When Cooking With Cannabis

In an effort to reduce insulin spikes, some nutritionists argue for sweeteners with low glycemic index scores. As a few examples, honey is 58, agave is 19, and maple syrup is 54. Lower glycemic scores are a good first step, but the next is to reduce sugar intake as much as possible. 

If you are cooking with cannabis, what are some alternatives to the white sugar called for in many recipes? Here are a few options:

Stevia: stevia is a novel sweetener extracted from a plant called Stevia rebaudiana. Unlike all the other popular alternatives to sugar, stevia has no impact on blood sugar. This fact has led to its rising popularity as a substitute. While no long-term studies exist on it, the Food and Drug Administration deems it safe. 

Agave: This is a sweet extraction pulled from the blue agave plants native to Mexico. It’s well-loved among nutritionists because its approximately forty percent sweeter than regular sugar, meaning a little goes a long way. Agave, although less refined than white sugar, does not contain any valuable nutrients of micro-nutrients.

Maple Syrup: A Canadian staple, maple syrup is the concentrated sap from maple trees. Every forty liters of sap pulled from the tree equals one liter of maple syrup. Like other natural sweeteners, maple syrup is primarily fructose, but it does contain antioxidants and several essential minerals.

Honey: Honey is slightly sweeter than table sugar and often has a floral flavor dependent on the flowers pollinated by its creators, the bees. Like maple syrup, it’s mainly fructose, but also contains vitamins and minerals, including niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamin B6. To get the most nutrients out of a tablespoon of honey, patients will want to look for unrefined, raw honey from organic sources.

How to Make Cannabis-Infused Maple Syrup/Candies

Should medical cannabis patients worry about sugar in their edibles? For most, cannabis edibles likely contribute minimally towards total sugar intake. Still, if you rely on edibles for a daily dose of cannabis, you’ll want to move away from refined sugars and perhaps choose healthier alternatives.

Or, better yet, why not make your own infused edibles? Many baked treats rely on sugar substitutes, including honey and stevia. If you do worry about the lack of research on stevia and still wonder, “Is stevia bad for you?” try switching to maple syrup.  Maple syrup is all-natural, minimally refined, and almost always organic. Although still high in fructose, it contains trace minerals and antioxidants. It’s a healthier choice and here’s how to make some.

Ingredients:

2 cups of organic maple syrup
¼ ounce cannabis flower (decarbed and roughly ground)

Directions:

  1. Place ½ ounce of cannabis flower into the center of cheese cloth and tie shut with cotton kitchen tie.
  2. Add maple syrup and cannabis into a slow cooker and cover with the lid.
  3. Set the slow cooker on low, and allow it to simmer for six to eight hours.
  4. Turn off slow cooker, and allow the mixture to cool the touch before handling. Remove the cannabis package and squeeze out any syrup. Discard the remaining cannabis flower.
  5. Pour infused maple syrup into a glass jar and seal. Store in the refrigerator.

Reducing Sugar for Healthier Medicine

If edibles are your preferred method of consumption, it’s wise to consider the sugar content. Likely one or two gummies for an acute treatment won’t have any long term impacts on health outcomes, but dosing with sweet treats on the daily could quickly become problematic. 

Thankfully, edibles are easy to make at home, and recipes are adjustable. Patients can experiment with savory options, healthier sugar substitutes, or reduced sugar-recipes. Instead of a cup of refined sugar, why not switch to a few drops of stevia or a small amount of raw, unpasteurized honey? The North American diet is already full of sugar; there is no reason why our medicine must be too.

References   [ + ]

1.Yang, Quanhe, et al. “Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 174, no. 4, 2014, p. 516., doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563.
2.Leung, Cindy W., et al. “Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 104, no. 12, 2014, pp. 2425–2431., doi:10.2105/ajph.2014.302151.
Author avatar

Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She is lucky enough to live in beautiful British Columbia, Canada where the cannabis industry is exploding. When not writing, she spends much of her time exploring in the coastal forests.

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