The Adverse Effects of Triclosan on the Environment

The Environmental Impact of Triclosan

It’s no secret that environmental pollution and contaminants can come from many different sources. But many people may not realize that ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products can harm the environment and the plants and animals living in it. Many ingredients in such products are questionable at best due to the adverse effects that they have on humans.

Triclosan, for example, has been linked to contact dermatitis and skin irritation in humans and has been implicated in the development of microbial resistance to antibiotic agents (source). In addition to these concerns, the use of triclosan in a range of consumer products is also having a negative impact on the environment.


Triclosan was first registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as a pesticide (source), and it continues to be classified as such today (source). While triclosan is regulated in many countries, this is not the case here in the U.S. (source).

In addition to being a pesticide, triclosan is also an antimicrobial agent that targets mainly bacteria, though it has some antifungal and antiviral properties as well. Introduced in the U.S. in the 1970s, triclosan was originally created for use in surgical scrubs in hospitals. Since that time, the use of triclosan in consumer products has exploded. It is now found not only in hand soaps, but also in other personal care products such as acne creams, cosmetics, deodorant, and toothpaste. It is also sometimes embedded into yoga mats, kitchen utensils, furniture, bedding, trash bags, and toys. And these are just a few examples! Triclosan is added to products with the goal of reducing or eliminating bacterial populations from the skin and various surfaces, but its use in personal care products means that some of it eventually ends up in our waterways.

There is evidence that some triclosan is absorbed into the body when applied on the skin in personal care products (it has been detected in human breast milk and urine). But triclosan found in soaps and toothpaste, for example, is easily washed down the drain and eventually makes its way to water treatment plants. The amount of triclosan that is removed from water at these facilities varies from plant to plant. While it is estimated that up to 95% of triclosan can be removed from wastewater (source), that still leaves 5% (or more) of it to enter our waterways. Once released into the environment, several key concerns come into play.



Triclosan has been found in both surface and wastewater. Once in these waters, triclosan may- when exposed to sunlight- break down, creating two types of dioxins, 2,8-DCDD and 2,4-DCP. Dioxins can be highly carcinogenic (source). There is also some evidence that triclosan may combine with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform, a probable human carcinogen (source). However, studies on this issue are conflicting, and further research is needed (source).


In addition for the potential to form toxic breakdown products, triclosan has also been found to adversely affect various plant and animal species. Triclosan is highly toxic to algae; researchers in Japan have observed that at least one species of green algae is especially susceptible to the effects of triclosan. As they noted in the findings of a study, algae “are important organisms being the first-step producers in the ecosystem; therefore, the possible destruction of the balance of the ecosystem is expected if triclosan is discharged into the environment at high levels” (source). Because algae is so critical to the health of the ecosystems in which it grows, a threat to it represents a threat to many other organisms living in that same system.

Triclosan impacts animals as well. It has been found to disrupt the expression of certain genes in the North American bullfrog (source). And, as a lipophilic substance, triclosan can be absorbed into and stored in the fatty tissues and internal organs of fish, where it can interfere with various species’ hormonal and reproductive systems (sourcesource). The bioaccumulation of triclosan in some fish may also leave open the possibility for people to consume triclosan when eating them.


If triclosan was extremely effective at doing what it is intended to do, i.e. eliminating bacteria and lowering the rate of infections and illness, then maybe it would be worth using it in spite of the negative impact it often has. However, there is little evidence that people who regularly use antibacterial soaps are less likely to get sick than those who don’t use them. The FDA has stated that washing with soaps containing triclosan is no more effective than washing with regular soap and water: “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water” (source). Furthermore, the American Medical Association does not endorse the need for or the efficacy of triclosan outside of health care settings or for persons with weakened immune systems. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not antibacterial soaps, but vigorous hand washing with plain soap for at least 10 seconds in order to remove germs (source). A lack of efficacy combined with the detrimental effects that triclosan can have on humans, aquatic plants, and some animals indicate that triclosan should be used judiciously and with caution. It may be appropriate for use in hospitals, for example, but the benefits of triclosan for household soaps have not been proven. Therefore, you can make a difference today for your local waterways and wildlife by ditching antibacterial soaps and opting for plain soap and water.


Dann, AB, Hontela, A. “Triclosan: Environmental Exposure, Toxicity, and Mechanisms of Action.” PubMed. May 2011. Web. 11 April 2016.

Hamblin, James. “The Ingredient to Avoid in Soap.” The Atlantic. 17 November 2014. Web. 11 April 2016.

Mercola, Joseph. “Triclosan: The Soap Ingredient You Should Never Use — But 75% of Households Do.” 29 August 2012. Web. 11 April 2016.

“Pesticide Registration Status.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 11 April 2016.

Tatarazako, N, Ishibashi,H, Teshima, K, Kishi, K, Arizono, K. “Effects of Triclosan on Various Aquatic Organisms.” 2004 PubMed. Web. 11 April 2016.

“Triclosan.” Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics. January 2011. Web. 11 April 2016.

“Triclosan and Drinking Water.” Minnesota Department of Health, Environmental Health Division. August 2014. Web. 11 April 2016.

“Triclosan: Environmental Fate and Effects.” Beyond Pesticides. Web. 11 April 2016.

“Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know.” Food and Drug Administration. Web. 11 April 2016.

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The Effects of Microbeads on Water and Wildlife

The Effects of Microbeads on Our Water and Wildlife


The Effects of Microbeads on Our Water and Wildlife

The Effects of Microbeads on Water and Wildlife

I first wrote this article (under a different title) for the Verefina blog. Microbeads are causing major problems for our water and marine life, but they don’t have to. Read on to learn more about microbeads and how you can avoid them.

Microbeads are frequently added to products like soap, facial cleansers, and toothpaste. These tiny pieces of plastic (yes, plastic!) are used in products as exfoliants and are sometimes touted for their ability to deeply clean skin. Once they’ve served that purpose, though, microbeads accumulate in the environment and negatively impact wildlife and humans alike.

Where Do Microbeads Go When We’re Done with Them?

Microbeads are designed to go down the drain when these products are rinsed off, but their tiny size makes them nearly impossible to be filtered out at water treatment plants. So they make their way into waterways and are accumulating in our rivers, lakes, and oceans at staggering levels. The office of New York’s state’s attorney general recently reported that about 19 tons of microbeads are washing into that state’s wastewater every year (source). And a research team studying the Great Lakes a few years ago found an average of 17,000 bits of tiny plastic items per square kilometer in Lake Michigan (source).

A Threat to Animals and People

Once in waterways, microbeads pose a threat for marine life, and, eventually, for people. Microbeads can absorb and concentrate environmental pollutants, such as pesticides, making them far more toxic than the water around them. Aquatic animals may mistake microbeads for fish eggs or other food, and therefore consume them. In some cases, the pollutants that are absorbed into microbeads contain endocrine disruptors that may potentially affect the reproductive cycles of the animals that eat them. These toxins can gradually make their way up the food chain and can end up in the seafood that we eat. And in some cases, microbeads affect larger animals directly. The northern right whale, an already endangered species, may be exposed to these toxic plastics through filter-feeding.

Addressing the Problem of Microbeads

Concern over microbeads has been growing for several years, and some states have recently enacted legislation that would restrict the use of microbeads. Illinois, for example, has a law that requires companies to stop manufacturing products with microbeads by the end of 2018 and prohibits them from selling these products by the end of 2019. Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, and Maryland also have laws that restrict the use of microbeads.

Some environmentalists argue that these laws do not go far enough because they leave open the possibility of using biodegradable- but minimally tested- alternatives. Polylactic acid, for example, can break down faster than other plastics, but only under high heat and other conditions not usually found in aquatic areas. “Everything on earth is biodegradable on a geologic time scale. It’s not biodegradable in a meaningful time frame,” says Stiv Wilson, an environmentalist and director of campaigns at the nonprofit group The Story of Stuff Project (source). Polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, a naturally-occurring plastic produced by bacteria, is also being developed for use in personal care products. PHA can potentially break down in marine environments in about a month. But that’s assuming that marine animals don’t eat it first.

In response to the backlash to microbeads, some companies have stated that they will voluntarily remove the beads from their products. Johnson & Johnson, for example, says that it will discontinue the use of microbeads by 2017. L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble have announced that they are phasing out microbeads in their products, too.

What Can Consumers do NOW?

While these actions are a step in the right direction, the problem requires a greater sense of urgency. With an annual level of 19 tons of microbeads going into New York’s wastewater alone, we need to respond now. Companies may have several years before they are required to remove microbeads from their products, but consumers can start avoiding them today. Choose products that do not have polyethylene or polypropylene in the ingredient list. Or, better yet, opt for products that use all natural exfoliants, such as sugar, ground almonds, or oatmeal.

Microbeads are a threat to the health of both animals and people, but they don’t have to be. By avoiding products that contain microbeads and choosing natural exfoliants instead, consumers can send a message to companies that we don’t want plastic in our personal care products.

Verefina Products with Natural Exfoliants

Want to exfoliate naturally? These products are microbead-free:

Lemon Coconut Creamy Cleanser

Facial Masks

Sugar Scrubs


Abrams, Rachel. “Fighting Pollution from Microbeads Used in Soaps and Creams.” The New York Times. 22 May 2015. Web. 15 September 2015.

Beck, Julie. “How Face Wash Pollutes Water.” The Atlantic. 17 June 2014. Web. 14 September 2015.

Corley, Cheryl. “Why Those Tiny Microbeads in Soap May Pose Problem for the Great Lakes.” National Public Radio. 21 May 2014. Web. 15 September 2015.

“Microbeads in the Great Lakes.” Watershed Council. Web. 14 September 2015.

Warner, Kelsey. “What are Microbeads and Why is Canada Banning Them?” The Christian Science Monitor. 7 August 2015. Web. 14 August 2015.


Natural Remedies for Insect Bites

Natural Remedies for Insect Bites

In my last post, I looked at 10 essential oils that can repel insects. Taking preventative measures can help reduce the chances of getting bitten, but it’s not always possible to avoid insect bites altogether. If you do get bitten there are many natural methods of treating the bite (or bites). In addition to being itchy and irritating, insect bites and stings can transfer bacteria or other microbes to the skin. Scratching bug bites can also transfer unwanted germs into the bite and can cause further inflammation and irritation. So it’s important to treat insect bites quickly and to reduce the itching as much as possible. The next time you have a bug bite, try one or more of the following.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera helps treat insect bites

Aloe vera is probably best known for its ability to heal sunburns. However, it is also useful for treating bug bites. Aloe vera contains over 130 active compounds and 34 amino acids that nourish the skin and support its health. It can also help reduce inflammation, itching, and swelling around the bite.

Apple Cider Vinegar

It may not smell great, but apple cider vinegar can help take the itch out of bug bites. It is less acidic than other vinegars and can help restore the pH balance to the skin around bites. For individual bites, put a few drops of ACV on a cotton ball, and dab it on. For bites all over, add two to three cups of vinegar to a warm bath, and soak. Don’t worry- you won’t smell like vinegar; the smell dissipates quickly.

Baking Soda

Plain old baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) can lower inflammation and relieve itching. To treat bites, make a paste with baking soda and water and apply to the bite.

Lavender Essential Oil

With its antimicrobial properties, lavender essential oil is ideal for insect bites. As an anti-inflammatory agent, lavender oil also helps to reduce redness, itching, and swelling.

Peppermint Essential Oil

Peppermint essential oil for insect bites

This essential oil creates a cooling sensation, which reaches the brain faster than that itchy feeling caused by insect bites. The brain can only perceive one sensation at a time, so peppermint oil can essentially block the itching, providing temporary relief.

Tamanu Oil

Found in the nut of a tropical tree, tamanu oil has a wealth of properties that make it well-suited for treating insect bites and stings. It helps relieve pain and itching associated with bites. Tamanu oil also contains anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce swelling and redness. Finally, it promotes healing of tissues and supports the formation of new, healthy skin. Tamanu oil is found in Verefina First Aid Stick and First Aid Ointment. These first aid products also contain lavender and tea tree essential oils, so they are ideal for use on insect bites.

Tea Bags

A cooled tea bag can work wonders for bites. The tannins in the tea help to reduce swelling by drawing excess fluids out of the affected area. Tannins also help pull toxins from insect bites.

Tea Tree Essential Oil

Like lavender essential oil, tea tree oil is antimicrobial, making it useful for healing infections. It is anti-inflammatory as well, so it can decrease itching, swelling, and pain. To treat insect stings with tea tree essential oil, first remove the stinger. Then apply tea tree oil diluted with a carrier oil to the affected area.

Witch Hazel

A natural astringent, witch hazel is found in many personal care products. It works especially well in combination with baking soda. When blended with baking soda, witch hazel helps pull fluids out of and reduce inflammation around insect bites. Simply blend a little bit of baking soda into a small amount of witch hazel until a paste forms; apply to affected areas.


Gardenista. “5 Natural Ways to Ease Bug Bite Itching.” Care2. 27 July 2013. Web 23 July 2015.

Isaacs, Tony. “Natural Remedies and Repellents for Biting and Stinging Insects.” Natural News. 12 September 2008. Web. 24 July 2015.

Kilham, Chris. “Natural Remedies for Bug Bites.” Fox News. 26 June 2012. Web. 23 July 2015.

Klein, Sarah. “Mosquito Bite Treatment: 14 Natural Ways to Ease the Itch.” Huffington Post. 20 June 2012. Web. 23 July 2015.

Mercola, Joseph. “Baking Soda Uses: To Remove Splinters– and to Address Many Other Health Needs.” 27 August 2012. Web. 24 July 2015.

Mercola, Joseph. “How to Prevent and Treat Insect Bites Without Harsh Chemicals.” 22 July 2013. Web. 24 July 2015.

Mercola, Joseph. “Lavender Oil: A Love for Lavender Oil.” Web. 23 July 2015.

10 Essential Oils that Repel Insects


The bugs have been out for a while now. And if you’re one of those unlucky people who attracts biting insects, then finding an effective way to keep them at bay is probably a must for you. There are many insect repelling options out there, but some products- especially those made with DEET– may have a negative impact on your health. If you’d prefer to find an effective, toxin-free way of repelling insects, then essential oils may be the best answer for you. There are a number of essential oils that can keep bugs away- without the toxic side effects.


Research done at Iowa State University found that catnip essential oil is roughly 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET (source).


Cedarwood essential oil is obtained from the steam distillation of pieces of cedar. It is useful for repelling flies, mosquitoes, and other pests (source).


Citronella essential oil is an old standby as a natural insect repellent. Derived from a plant related to geraniums, this oil works by masking the scents that generally attract insects, thereby making it difficult for them to find their targets (source). It has been used as an insect repellant since 1948.


The compound eugenol is responsible for many of clove essential oil’s health benefits. Although undiluted clove essential oil can provide two to four hours of protection against mosquitoes (source), the pure oil can cause irritation on the skin. If you want to use undiluted clove oil to deter mosquitoes, put it on your clothing , rather than directly on your skin. Just be sure to check on an unnoticeable spot to make sure it doesn’t stain or discolor the fabric. Putting clove oil in a diffuser can also help keep mosquitoes away.

Cloves can also deter moths and ants. Place a mesh bag with crushed cloves in areas where these critters are a problem.


Eucalyptus is a popular ingredient in natural bug repellants because it can help repel mosquitoes. This oil, diluted at 15%, can deter mosquitoes for up to three hours; when combined with vanillin, it is effective for about five hours (source). A 2010 study found that eucalyptus essential oil is also effective at deterring the sandfly (source).


Lavender essential oil is a popular oil with a wide range of uses. While it gives off a sweet, floral scent to humans, many insects are repelled by linalool, a naturally-occurring alcohol found in lavender (source). Lavender is particularly repellant to mosquitoes, fleas, houseflies, and moths but is safe for both humans and pets. Its effectiveness is increased when combined with other essential oils, such as citronella.


A relative of citronella, lemongrass has a stronger, spicier scent that many biting bugs will avoid. It is especially effective against horse flies and mosquitoes.


Patchouli essential oil can provide up to two hours of protection against insects (source). Many people can tolerate higher concentrations of patchouli, but even a dilution of 10% can be effective.


Peppermint essential oil may be refreshing and energizing for people, but mosquitoes don’t like it. This oil has been found to provide complete protection against mosquitoes for about 2.5 hours (source).

Tea Tree

Tea tree essential oil has a strong scent that keeps ants, horse flies, and other insects away.

DIY Insect Repellent

You can make your own all-natural insect repellent using essential oils:


* 50-60 drops essential oils (choose from any of the ones listed above)

* 4 oz. distilled water

* 4 oz. witch hazel

* 8 oz. spray bottle (glass is preferable, as essential oils can break down plastic)


Place all of the ingredients in the spray bottle, and shake gently to mix. Shake before each use, and spray on exposed skin before going outside.


“Crafting a Natural Bug Repellent with Essential Oils.” Herbal Academy of New England. 18 June 2014. Web. 8 July 2015.

Ettinger, Jill. “Smell Fantastically Natural and Repel Insects: 6 Essential Oils for Summer.” Ecosalon. 2 July 2013. Web. 7 July 2015.

Langton, Nicole. “Essential Oils That Repel Insects.” LiveStrong. 21 October 2013. Web. 8 July 2015.

Masters, Madeline. “What Kind of Bugs Does Lavender Essential Oil Repel?” SFGate. Web. 10 July 2015.

Mercola, Joseph. “Tea Tree Oil: Three Cheers for Tea Tree Oil.” Web. 30 June 2015.

“Oil of Citronella General Fact Sheet.” National Pesticide Information Center. Web. 8 July 2015.

Schoffro Cook, Michelle. “8 Natural Mosquito Repellents.” Care2. 30 May 2013. Web. 9 July 2015.

Trongtokit Y., Rongsriyam Y., Komalamisra N., Apiwathnasorn C. “Comparative Repellency of 38 Essential Oils Against Mosquito Bites.” PubMed. 19 April 2005. Web. 20 July 2015.

Turner, Paige. “Cloves as a Repellent.” SFGate. Web. 21 July 2015.

Yang P., Ma Y. “Repellent effect of plant essential oils against Aedes albopictus.” PubMed. 30 December 2005. Web 20 July 2015.

Yigzaw, Erika. “Green Cleaning: 10 Essential Oils That Naturally Repel Insects.” American College of Healthcare Sciences. 26 June 2014. Web. 7 July 2015.

“15 Cedarwood Uses for Wisdom and Beauty.” Dr. Axe. Web. 9 July 2015.

“25 Uses for Peppermint Oil.” Dr. Axe. Web. 21 July 2015.

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Eucalyptus Essential Oil

How to Use Eucalyptus Essential Oil

Clove Essential Oil

How to Use Clove Essential Oil






10 Tips for Cutting Back on Sugar


Over the past few months, I published two posts on “natural” sweeteners- one on xylitol, the other on stevia. I put the word natural in quotes because while both xylitol and stevia do occur in nature, the xylitol and stevia that are found on grocery store shelves and in various foods and beverages are highly processed or must go through an extraction process.

I got interested in both of these sweeteners because I have a major sweet tooth. Xylitol and stevia both seemed like a good way to satisfy my cravings for sweets without wrecking total havoc on my blood sugar- and my overall health. I’ve tried them both, but neither one is a perfect substitute, for a variety of reasons. So I usually prefer the real thing.

But early last fall I had a wake up call. I had my HbA1C levels checked. HbA1C is a measure of your average blood sugar levels over the past two or three months. It was within the normal range, but on the high end of normal. It wasn’t happy about the results, though I took full responsibility. I knew what the culprit was: I had eaten WAY more ice cream than is healthy over the summer. Now I was paying the price. I’d tried before, but I decided that I wanted to kick the sugar habit for good. Since then I’ve made some big changes and cut way back on refined sugars. I’ve also overdone it a few times, but I’ve been determined to get back on track. And I’ve found several things that have helped me to keep my cravings under control. If you’re trying to watch the sugar, too, I hope that some or all of these suggestions will be helpful.

Know How Much Sugar is Too Much

I think most of us know that too much sugar is not a good thing. But how much is too much? It’s probably less than you might think. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugars a day, while women should keep their added sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day (source). This translates to about 37.5 grams of sugar for men and 25 grams for women. When you consider that a 12-oz. can of regular Coke has 39 grams of sugar, it becomes clear how easy it is to exceed these limits. However, I find that having a number to aim for is very helpful. If I know that I should shoot for 25 grams or less of added sugars a day, then I know when I’ve had enough.

Understand the Difference Between “Naturally Occurring Sugars” and “Added Sugars”

There are different kinds of sugars that are found in foods (though they all get broken down into glucose in the end). Naturally occurring sugars are those found in foods such as fruits and dairy products. Fruit contains fructose, while milk has lactose. Both fructose and lactose are forms of sugar that contribute carbohydrates to the diet. However, when you consume fructose or lactose in foods, you also get other needed nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fat, and protein.

Added sugars are those that do not occur naturally in foods, but are added during processing. Juice, for example, often contains added sugars. And sugar is also added to products such as candy, soda, granola bars, cereal, instant oatmeal, and flavored yogurt, to name a few. It is the added sugars that are especially important to watch- the ones that should be kept at or below 37.5 grams (for men) or 25 grams (for women) per day.

Read Labels

Food manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in their products and to state on nutrition labels how much sugar is in a serving of each product. The amount of sugar is given in grams. It is generally helpful to know how much sugar is in a product, except when it contains both natural and added sugars. In these cases, it is difficult to tell how much of the sugar is natural and how much is added. Fruit juice, for instance, will have the natural sugars from the fruit, but it may also have added sugars as well. To cut sugars from juice, look for products that have no added sugars or that are made with 100% fruit juice.

Sugar has many names, so learning to recognize them can help you to cut back. As a general rule, any ingredient that ends with –ose is a form of sugar. Fructose, dextrose, and sucrose are all examples. There are other ingredients that also indicate the presence of sugar: honey, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave, cane sugar, fruit juice, molasses, and maple syrup all have sugar in them. Keep in mind that even if products- such as cookies- are sweetened with natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, sugar is still being added to them.

Also be sure to look for where in the list of ingredients sugar (or some form of it) falls. If sugar is near the beginning of the list, it’s likely that there’s a lot of it in that food or drink.

Keep Track of Your Sugar Intake

Knowing what your limit should be and reading food labels can help you keep track of how much added sugar you’re actually eating. For the first couple of weeks that you’re trying to cut back on sugar, you may find it helpful to keep a journal or to write down how many grams of added sugar you’ve eaten throughout the day. After you’ve established new habits, you may find that you no longer need to do this.

Start with the Low-Hanging Fruit

There are many, many foods and drinks that contain added sugars, which means there are lots of opportunities to cut them out. Think about some of the moderate- to high-sugar foods that you could easily give up. Maybe you don’t like soda that much. Maybe you can live without a glass of juice in the morning. Maybe you can skip the cookie after lunch. Identify these foods and drinks, and cut or reduce them from your diet first.

Several years ago, I stopped eating flavored yogurt. Flavored yogurts are very high in sugar, and I decided that I could go without them. A 6-ounce container of Dannon vanilla yogurt has 25 grams of sugar in it (source)! Of course some of those sugars come from naturally-occurring lactose. Plain yogurt, in comparison, has 12 grams of sugar in a 6-ounce serving (source).

Plain yogurt has an acquired taste, though. It tastes a lot better with a little bit of fat it, so if you want to replace flavored yogurt with plain, I suggest trying low or full fat yogurt. If you still can’t do straight plain yogurt, eat it with some fruit, or mix a little bit of flavored yogurt into it.

Cut it in Half

Cutting sugar out altogether can be very difficult, so you may want to try decreasing it gradually. If you add sugar to your coffee or tea, try cutting the amount you use in half. If you enjoy soda, drink half the amount that you normally do. After a week or two, try cutting the amount in half again.

Enjoy Nature’s Sweet Treats

As you cut back on added sugars, you may find that you can more easily taste the sweetness in fruits and even some vegetables. Fruit can make a great dessert. Baked apples or pears with cinnamon or various kinds of berries can gradually take the place of sugary desserts. I’m happy to say that frozen cherries have replaced the ice cream that got me into trouble last summer.

Limit Sugar Substitutes

The effects of artificial and natural sugar substitutes on blood glucose is up for debate, and is also the topic of a whole other post (or two). But whether they affect blood sugar or not, they can still trigger cravings for sweets. So trying to limit sugar alternatives- like you would sugar- can help reduce these cravings.

Savor a Few Sweets

I still enjoy sweets. Chocolate has always been my downfall. But now I try to choose my chocolate carefully and to savor it when I have it. I eat a little bit of dark chocolate each day and try to eat it slowly, so I can enjoy it.

Don’t Give Up!

If you get off track, don’t worry about it. Everyone backslides from time to time. Simply remind yourself of your goals, and pick up where you left off.


Hilmantel, Robin. “56 Different Names for Sugar.” Women’s Health. 3 November 2014. Web. 25 April 2015.

“Sugar 101.” American Heart Associate. 19 November 2014. Web. 25 April 2015.

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Bottle of Stevia Extract

The Good and the Bad About Stevia


Is Xylitol a Safe Alternative to Sugar?

The Good and the Bad About Stevia

Bottle of Stevia Extract

I first learned about stevia 8 or 9 years ago. At that time, it was not approved by the FDA for use as a tabletop sweetener or as an ingredient in products such as baked goods and beverages. Instead, it could only be sold in the U.S. as a supplement. Seems like a strange way to regulate a sweetening agent, but things have changed since I first became aware of stevia. Stevia has been hailed as a natural alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. Unlike xylitol and other natural sweeteners, it has no calories. And many of those who are wary of synthetic sweeteners like the fact that stevia comes from a plant.

I was very excited to try it out when I discovered stevia. Over time, though, I did start to wonder about it. Is it as safe as proponents claim it is? Are there any downsides to it? It’s not that I had heard or read anything particularly negative; I just wanted to know more about it. So I decided to do some research. Like everything else in the natural health world, there are varying opinions on stevia- and various benefits and downsides.

A Brief History of Stevia

Stevia rebaudiana is a South American plant related to sunflowers and chrysanthemums. It grows naturally Brazil and Paraguay but is also cultivated in Japan, China, India, Argentina, and other South American and Asian countries.

Stevia has been used as a natural sweetener by the Guarani Indians in Paraguay since the 16th century. They used crushed stevia leaves to sweeten teas and medicine (source). Stevia’s use as a sweetener had spread through much of South America by the 19th century (source).

There are actually about 300 species of stevia plants, but it is the species Stevia rebaudiana that contains compounds that have a sweet taste (source). Scientists isolated these compounds, known as steviol glycosides, in the last century. Stevia became particularly popular in Japan, and that country began cultivating stevia plants in the 1950s. Stevia is approved in different countries for use in various foods. Around the world, it can be found in ice cream, yogurt, chewing gum, candy, bread, beverages, and other products.

There are eight steviol glycosides that contribute to Stevia rebaudiana’s sweet taste, but just two of them, stevioside and rebaudioside A (or Reb A) are generally used in food products. These glycosides can be 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so only a very small amount is needed. As sweet as stevia is, though, it often has a bitter aftertaste that many people do not care for.

It is not whole stevia leaves, like those traditionally used by the indigenous populations of South America, that are approved for use as a sweetener in the U.S. It is the glycosides contained in the leaves (source). Isolating glycosides from stevia leaves involves a multi-step extraction process.

How are Steviol Glycosides Extracted?

Extracting steviol glycosides requires a series of steps, the first of which is drying harvested stevia leaves. The dried leaves are then soaked in hot water. Next, the leaves are passed through a resin material that traps and collects steviol glycosides. This extract is then spray-dried and ground to create a powder. Because the glycosides are so sweet, a bulking agent, such as cornstarch is typically added to glycosides intended for use as tabletop sweeteners. Glycosides may be further altered by clipping off the molecules’ more bitter parts, so that only the sweet part remains (source). In addition to coming in a powdered form, stevia is also available as a liquid. Only one or two drops of the liquid are needed to sweeten a cup of coffee, for example.

While steviol glycosides do occur in nature, they don’t occur naturally in this isolated form. Some consumers may be okay with this; others may question how natural stevia extracts are after having undergone this process.

The Benefits of Stevia

Proponents of stevia point to several benefits of using it: it comes from a plant, it has no calories, it doesn’t affect blood sugar in the same way that sugar does.

A “Natural” Sugar Substitute

As I mentioned above, stevia is a plant and therefore natural. How natural extracted steviol glycosides are is a matter of opinion. If you don’t mind the fact that these glycosides must undergo numerous steps before they can be used as a sweetener, then, yes, they are natural. As such, they may be a better choice than artificial sweeteners.

Stevia Has No Calories/Doesn’t Contribute to Weight Gain

Steviol glycosides are not broken down well in the digestive system; they pass intact through the stomach and small intestine. In the colon, probiotic bacteria begin to act on steviol glycoside molecules, partially breaking them down. The smaller molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream, processed in the liver, and excreted in the urine (source). Because steviol glycosides are not fully metabolized, they do not contribute calories to the diet.

Since the glycosides in stevia have no calories, it has been suggested that the use of stevia as a sweetener can help control weight. Stevia-sweetened foods can help those trying to lose weight reduce their energy intake by avoiding foods that contain sugar. Some health experts also like stevia because it doesn’t trigger appetite-stimulating hormones, such as ghrelin (source).

Stevia has a Positive Impact on Blood Sugar

There have been questions over the years about how stevia affects blood sugar, if at all. There is some evidence that stevia may stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin (source). This may not sound like a good thing at first. After all, the excessive release of insulin can lead to insulin resistance. That is, cells that have been exposed to too much insulin begin “ignoring” it and therefore do not accept the glucose that the insulin is shuttling. However, in addition to increasing insulin levels, stevia may also increase cellular sensitivity to insulin and help clear glucose from the blood after a meal (source). Mark at Mark’s Daily Apple describes stevia’s effects on blood sugar in this way:

It may induce insulin secretion, but it increases insulin sensitivity, reduces blood glucose (i.e., the insulin is doing its job), and does not increase appetite.

Problems with Stevia

Using Stevia Doesn’t Guarantee Weight Loss

The fact that stevia doesn’t contribute any calories to the diet is very appealing. However, using sugar substitutes won’t necessarily keep people from overeating. And, calorie-free or not, stevia is still intensely sweet, so it won’t help dampen a person’s sweet tooth. There is even concern that stevia’s extremely sweet taste could alter our food preferences (source).

Another Look at Stevia’s Impact on Blood Sugar

While there is some evidence that stevia may increase cellular sensitivity to insulin, there are those who view stevia’s effects on blood sugar differently. Sweetness receptors in the intestines, liver, pancreas, and brain all respond to a sweet taste on the tongue, whether it comes from sugar or a sugar substitute (source). When a sweet flavor is detected, the body prepares itself for an increase in sugar, clearing glucose from the blood and releasing insulin. If no actual carbohydrates or glucose arrive in the body, adrenaline and cortisol levels rise in order to pull glucose from other sources, such as protein or body tissues (source). In this scenario, normal blood glucose levels are restored through the release of stress hormones. However, consuming actual carbohydrates along with stevia might help to lessen this effect.

Concluding Thoughts on Stevia

Americans have a large appetite for sweet foods. I certainly am guilty of having a sweet tooth (although I do try to keep it under control). With all of the negative effects that too much sugar can have on health, it is easy to understand why sugar substitutes are so appealing. Stevia seems to have a bit of an edge over other sugar replacements. For one thing, it is (more) natural than many others. But it is important to be aware that the stevioside or Reb A that is added to many foods and beverages does not naturally occur in isolation; they are extracts. Whether or not they are still natural after the extraction process depends on your point of view.

As for stevia’s impact on blood sugar, the evidence is mixed. As I mentioned above, consuming stevia along with foods that contain some carbohydrates might ensure a healthier hormone response to the sweet flavor. As with sugar itself, it seems to me that consuming only small to moderate amounts of stevia is probably best.


Bratskeir, Kate. “7 Things You Didn’t Know About Stevia.” Huffington Post. 16 October 2014. Web. 11 April 2015.

Gutherie, Catherine. “Stevia: Too Good to be True?” EXPERIENCE L!FE. May 2013. Web. 2 April 2015.

Lemacks, Jennifer. “How is Stevia Made?” Healthy Eating. Web. 12 April 2015.

Mercola, Joseph. “Stevia: The ‘Holy Grail’ of Sweeteners?” 16 December 2008. Web. 12 April 2015.

Sisson, Mark. “A Primal Primer: Stevia.” Mark’s Daily Apple. 8 February 2015. Web. 22 April 2015.

“What is Stevia? What are the Health Benefits of Stevia?” Medical News Today. 29 December 2014. Web. 12 April 2015.

“What refined Stevia preparations have been evaluated by FDA to be used as a sweetener?” FDA. Web. 15 April 2015.

Wright, Carolann. “Is Stevia Healthy and Safe to Use?” Natural News. 2 February 2015. Web. 3 April 2015.

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