Ask The Pharmacist: The allergic connection between stevia and ragweed
It’s hardly a secret that many foods today have non-sugar sweeteners added to them. As far as natural sweeteners go, stevia is the king. It’s in a bazillion food products, many of which are aimed at people with diabetes or obesity. Powdered supplements and lozenges often contain stevia, it’s everywhere!
Stevia is a plant-derived herb, so obviously there could be allergies. Maybe your throat itches or seizes up when sipping a stevia-sweetened drink or when you chew on sugar-free gum. Maybe you sneeze or your lips itch. Perhaps it’s a coughing fit or hives and a rash. It’s all because of a very common allergen: Ragweed!
Are you allergic to ragweed? If you are, then you are also susceptible to sensitivities from stevia consumption. Before I discuss allergic symptoms, I’d like to share the extraordinary medical benefits that stevia offers in case you’re not allergic to it. Most people are not. Stevia helps with:
- Kidney disease
- Pain and inflammation
Stevia is two hundred times sweeter than table sugar, contains almost no calories, and won’t adversely affect your blood sugar when consumed. That’s why it’s an incredible herb for sweetening foods when you’re on a diet, or if you are just health conscious.
But the problem is the family tree. Stevia was born into the Asteraceae family, or “Aster” which essentially means that stevia is genetically kin to marigolds, daises, chrysanthemums, dandelion, lettuce, safflower, sunflower, artemisia (wormwood), artichokes, endive, and, most importantly, ragweed. This is a botanical family that allergen-prone individuals need to stay away from.
In fact, there’s an estimated 23 million Americans who suffer from ragweed-triggered hay fever. Not all of those people are sensitive to stevia, or the other plants in the Aster family, but some of you are and may not have realized it until just now!
Pollen from the ragweed and pollen from the stevia plant contain very similar proteins as part of their genetic makeup. This means that there’s cross-reactivity between them. Once the stevia protein passes through your gut, and gets absorbed by your bloodstream, it might get mistaken by your immune system and shot down! Your body might mistake it for the ragweed protein (because they’re so structurally similar) and then you’re faced with miserable allergic symptoms.
I have written a longer version of this article that features other natural sweeteners, as well as advice to help determine if you’re truly allergic. Visit suzycohen.com and sign up for my free newsletter so I can email you this article along with precautions. In the meantime, keep track of symptoms that are suggestive of ragweed cross-reactivity such as throat, lip and mouth itching and swelling, hives, dizziness, coughing fits, temporary shortness of breath, or throat pain. If you feel like you’re sensitive, I recommend cutting out stevia from your diet until you get some answers and visiting a board-certified immunologist for testing.
Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist. The information presented here is not intended to treat, cure or diagnose any condition. Visit SuzyCohen.com.