Drink with ragweed coming out of the glass

Allergic to Ragweed? An Increasingly Common Sugar Substitute Could Be Problematic, Too.

My friend Lynne recently posted on Facebook that she found herself having significant allergy symptoms after consuming protein shakes sweetened with stevia. After chatting with her doctor and having some allergy tests done, she confirmed her suspicion about asthma and stevia allergies:

“Stevia, as it turns out, is part of the ragweed family,” she wrote. “[...] Lo and behold, I am horribly allergic to stevia. And while ragweed makes me sniffle and my face swells and I look like I have been punched the symptoms are really all in[side] my head. Stevia I was actually ingesting, and that made the symptoms even worse.”

This increasingly common sweetener is related to ragweed?! Really? I had to learn more.

Hay fever or ragweed allergy: A link

Lynne noted in her post she’s always had horrible hay fever. Hay fever is another term for allergic rhinitis—involving neither actual hay in many cases, nor actual fever.1 In this case, the culprit behind her hay fever is the allergen ragweed: according to Allergic Living, "approximately 45 percent of people with allergic rhinitis and asthma show signs of sensitivity to ragweed pollen.”2

And it turns out, stevia—the plant behind the zero-ish calorie sweetener of the same name!—is part of the Asteraceae (don’t ask me how to pronounce that!) family… and is "related to the daisy and ragweed”.3

How is stevia produced?

Similar to the purification of other plant-based ingredients like cane sugar or natural vanilla extract (the latter for you fancy people and/or those who get nice gifts when people go to Mexico!).3 Stevia leaves are dried and then steeped in hot water, then the resulting liquid extract is filtered and purified.3

Can people be allergic to stevia?

One may make the connection that this is where the ragweed situation comes in, that pollen present in the stevia plant would be processed into the extract and end up in the final product. However, a 2015 article in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology says “not so fast!”. Per this article, clinicians are to advise patients with related plant allergies that “the potential for cross-reactions to stevia-based sweeteners is low based on currently available information, but that such reactions cannot be completely ruled out without further clinical research.”6

The article also notes “In the absence of more robust studies on the issue, advice on popular Internet websites that […] stevia-based sweeteners may cause allergic reactions is likely to persist.”6

While symptoms may be linked to a food sensitivity to stevia rather than a true allergy, it is still best to go visit a certified allergist and have tests done, like Lynne did, to determine what’s going on. Allergies that may just be “inconveniences” at first, with increased exposure, can turn into potentially life-threatening anaphylactic allergies, so it’s best to be safe!7

Navigating allergies and asthma

The best way to determine true food allergies is to visit an allergist for testing. As always when navigating food sensitivities and—more importantly—food allergies, reading the label is key. Read labels every time to ensure ingredients have not changed.

I myself am not sensitive to stevia, but I am sensitive to most other “artificial” non-sugar sweeteners, developing headaches and nausea most frequently. When, three years after an ingredient change to the iced tea I was drinking regularly, I finally read the label, I discovered the cause of the headaches I was having regularly. And when I decided to test the waters and eat Sweet Chili Heat Doritos knowing full well they have sucralose in them. Yep, you guessed it, I got a crazy headache and regretted it!

Read the labels—and use that information—every time… just in case!

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