I like food and drinks on the sweet side and have recently switched to stevia for seasoning my food (think sweet garlic sauce, salad dressings, etc.) and drinking “lightly sweetened” stevia carbonated waters, for example. When I serve food to guests, is it unethical of me to leave out that there is stevia in the food? If I don’t tell them, how do I respond when they comment on how sweet my food is? (This happened recently — most of my friends think of me as health conscious.)
Hoping to remain,
Sweetly Unaware Guests All Right
First, I have to guess why you would think it could be unethical to neglect to tell someone that stevia is in their food. Barring specific eating restrictions, or friends asking directly for a list of ingredients, most of the time we aren’t aware of every ingredient in a dish someone else prepares for us. Artificial sweeteners have been getting a fair amount of press for years regarding health concerns, most recently that aspartame and similar products have been the subject of some studies that linked their use to changes in gut microbiomes, potentially leading to diabetes, “sugar spikes,” or unwanted weight gain (Palmnas 2014). These studies are overall short in duration and small (e.g., 31 adults over 4 days; Frankenfeld 2015), and with mixed results in lab rats (Nettleton 2016). And most don’t even study stevia (one exception: Lopes 2017), though logically it is possible that stevia could produce the same sugar spike in the brain, and it could acclimate one to very sweet tastes, leading to use of more actual sugar. Science Vs., a podcast that explores science topics in an engaging way, but with rigorous science, has a fun episode on aspartame that might interest you.
So your question might be: I am aware of potential negative health effects of artificial sweeteners, and stevia is the more natural equivalent. Do I need to tell my friends? The main other option I can think of, for why you would think it was unethical is that nebulous feeling that it’s just not something people expect to encounter in their meals, similar to people who become upset when they have been “tricked” into eating a faux meat product or tofu cheesecake. Healthwise, it’s probably not a huge deal to occasionally have a small amount of artificial sweetener — the tests mentioned above focus on long-term use of the maximum recommended dose, and even they are not entirely conclusive. I am sure your friends having stevia in small amounts on occasion in your cooking could not harm their health. That said, if you believe that the other person would be upset if they found out, or if you feel like you need to hide it, you may feel better mentioning it casually when making the offer. An example could be, “I have some stevia orange fizzy water if you’re into that sort of thing, instead of plain water.” It doesn’t need to be a huge thing, just a mention. Don’t go over the top, and you never need to apologize for food you are giving to someone else.
Hope that helps!
Ask Reece is the Chronicle’s advice column by Karma working member Reece Steinberg, a health sciences librarian and food enthusiast. Reece provides advice with input from a variety of sources including anything from traditional etiquette columns to peer-reviewed scientific articles. He answers Karma member questions about dietary lifestyles, food science and fermentation, eating etiquette, and anything else food-related. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.