An herbal plant of the Asteraceae family, stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) has been used for over 1,500 years by indigenous communities in South America as a sugar substitute, a tea, a medicine, and a sweet tea. Now, stevia can be found in any supermarket as an alternative sweetener.
But is it actually healthier?
Most of the stevia products that can be found on shelves at the grocery stores don’t actually contain the whole stevia leaf. Instead, they are made from a highly refined stevia leaf extract, known as Reb-A, which is about 200 times sweeter than the table sugar.
Ground leaf stevia is the least processed and probably the healthier choice. The leaves are dried and then grounded into powder, creating a product only 10 to 15 times sweeter than sugar. Nevertheless, it hasn’t been approved by the FDA yet as more research is needed to ensure its safety.
What are the benefits of using stevia?
For someone trying to lose weight, stevia could be appealing as it’s a non-nutritive sweetener, which means it has no calories. The reason why it has no calories is that our body doesn’t try to digest it — stevia simply passes through our digestive system without being broken down for energy.
Also, for those who have diabetes, stevia could help to maintain the blood sugar levels in check. A 2010 study showed that stevia lowered insulin and glucose levels because it has no sugars in it (or rather, none that our body digests).
Stevia leaf powder can also help to manage cholesterol levels, according to a 2009 study, which found that stevia lowered total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and triglycerides with no negative effect – also increasing HDL cholesterol (the good one).
According to the FDA, stevia sweeteners, such as the ones containing Reb-A, are generally safe. However, the FDA hasn’t given the green light for whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extract to use in processed food or beverages yet, claiming there’s a lack of safety information.
Back in 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) said stevia was safe to consume 4 mg per kilogram corresponding with the person’s body weight every day. This equals to 3.5 to 9 teaspoons of the pure extract — more than enough for a couple of cups of coffee or tea.
What’s the difference between stevia and other sweeteners?
Consuming sugar in excess is usually associated with several negative side effects such as heart problems, diabetes and weight gain. This is the main appeal of stevia: it can serve as a replacement for sugar, without the calories. But it’s not the only sugar replacement.
Aspartame is also a popular sweetener that can be found in most of the diet sodas and so-called “sugar-free” foods. Despite not having calories (just as stevia), aspartame has been linked to a number health problems and it can contribute to depression and headaches. While the full extent of these problems is still under investigation (and both aspartame and stevia have come under fire for potentially playing a part in the obesity crisis despite having no calories), stevia seems somewhat safer than aspartame at this point.
Sucralose is also a popular sweeten er, which has been marketed as a healthy alternative to aspartame since it was approved in the 1990s. Nevertheless, studies showed problems with it, as the body metabolizes it differently. A 2013 study showed sucralose can generate toxins when exposed to high temperatures, and the potential health issues associated with sucralose are very controversial.
In order to avoid artificial sweeteners, many choose products sweetened with sugar alcohols such as xylitol and sorbitol. They don’t cause spikes in blood sugar but can be associated with digestive side effects such as diarrhea. They are mostly extracted from genetically modified corn.
Finally, besides stevia, there are plenty of other substitutes out there, such as honey, dates, coconut sugar, banana puree, brown rice syrup, and real fruit jam — all of which can be replacements for sugar. However, they contain different types of sugars themselves (such as fructose), and as a result, they increase the blood sugar in a fairly similar way to sugar itself, and should therefore be consumed in moderation.
How should stevia be used?
Stevia can be used instead of table sugar in most foods and beverages. Just a pinch of stevia powder is the same as one teaspoon of table sugar. Some ways to use it include in coffee or tea, in lemonade, in hot or cold cereal, in yogurt, and in a smoothie.
Stevia can also be used for baked goods, but it usually gives cakes and cookies an aftertaste similar to liquor. The amount to use depends on the brand. Generally speaking, for most stevia products, you can simply replace sugar with an equal amount of stevia for same results.
Nevertheless, not all brands are made specifically for baking, so it might be better to use fewer, as some stevia products are very potent. As in most cases, it might need trial and error to get the level of sweetness and textured wanted.
Why do some people say it tastes bad?
All humans have taste buds on the tongue, which contain receptors to identify bitter and sweet components. In the case of stevia, its chemical components interact with the sweet and the bitter receptors and this causes stevia’s bitter after state.
Of course, everyone’s taste is different, and this can affect different people din different ways. Researchers are working to identify the sweetest chemical compounds in stevia and also to breed the sweetest possible version of the plant itself. Aside from Reb-A, there are many compounds that are produced in the leaves of the plant that have more sweer properties such as the stevioside and Reb-B.
Can it be used during pregnancy?
Stevia that is manufactured with Reb-A can be used during pregnancy but in moderation. Those who are sensitive to sugar alcohol should use a brand that doesn’t contain erythritol.
On the other hand, it is not safe to use whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extract during pregnancy. Reb-A was assessed for its safety during pregnancy, while there’s not enough evidence to know if other types of stevia are safe to use.
There is some evidence available that suggests stevia can help to fight or prevent some types of cancer. A study in 2012 found that stevia plants can help boost cancer cell death in a human breast can cancer line and help decrease mitochondrial pathways that help cancer expand. Also, in 2013, another study backed those same findings.
All stevia products that are manufactured with Reb-A are considered safe, even for people who have diabetes or are pregnant, rarely causing side effects. Nevertheless, more research is needed to judge its effects on weight and other health issues. It’s also important to remember that stevia is much sweeter than table sugar or other sweeteners, so it’s not necessary to use as much.
Meanwhile, whole-leaf stevia is seen by many as an alternative and safe choice to table sugar or to refined stevia. But more research is needed to establish its safety for all groups of people. In the meantime, it’s best to check with your doctor before using it.
The best thing to do is to reduce the consumption of sugar or replacements as much as possible, and when you do need to consume sugar or replacements such as stevia, do so in moderation.