stevia: an all-natural sweetener with real health benefits

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

While we need carbohydrates for energy and nutrition, actual, refined sugar has a range of negative effects on our body and can cause anything from heart problems to diabetes. There are artificial substitutes, but you’ve probably heard the horror stories about how awful calorie-free sweeteners are. They make you fat, cause cancer and come with a range of other health issues.

The truth is, many of these studies are hype and conducted with a specific agenda. If you’re still concerned, however, have no fear. There is an completely natural, non-artificial, calorie-free sweetener out there that you can use to replace sugar. Even better: this sweetener has measurable and proven health benefits! Just think; you can get your sweets and live healthy, too.

What is this magical sweetener? It’s a leaf called stevia, and it’s gaining a lot of traction among those trying to eliminate processed foods and artificial sweeteners from their diet. Let’s take a look at the myriad health benefits of stevia, an all-natural product that can serve as an great replacement for corn syrup, sugar and artificial sweeteners in your diet.

What is stevia?

Stevia is defined as a genus of composite shrubs and herbs, and particularly a specific perennial flower that is native to Paraguay. It’s also the white powder derived from the leaves of this flower[1]. It’s a cousin to chrysanthemum, daisies and ragweed, and produces a sweetener that is anywhere up to 3 times as sweet as sugar[2] and has been used for many decades in Asia and South America to sweeten beverages and help in baking.

What sets stevia apart from other sugar substitutes is that it’s not artificial. While it is processed to reach the granulated form that we commonly use, the form that’s FDA-approved, it’s derived directly from a plant. It’s like sugar in this regard, but unlike sugar it isn’t known to cause an insulin reaction or blood sugar spikes, and it is entirely calorie free. As more and more people turn to sugar substitutes[3] and focus on natural and wholesome living, it’s likely that stevia will continue to gain notice.

Stevia has zero calories, zero fat and zero minerals, vitamins or other nutrition[4]. It’s simply sweet and safe. It is what many nutritionists term a “free food,” meaning it has no effect on your diet and can be consumed without concern. What makes it especially good, however, is that Stevia actually has a number of measurable health benefits[5] supported by scientific research!

Health benefits of stevia

At this point, there’s really no argument that processed and refined sugar is bad for us. Our love of sugar is directly responsible for the epidemic of diabetes across our nation today. People need to cut sugar from their diets and live a healthier lifestyle. To that end, there are tons of artificial sugar substitutes on the market, but people are also starting to want a healthier, more holistic lifestyle. This leads them to look for natural alternatives to curb that sweet tooth and without the reported negative effects of artificial sweeteners. Enter stevia, which has a range of health benefits from blood pressure control to weight loss to blood sugar control and even cholesterol benefits[6].

According to the Mayo Clinic[7], stevia can produce a feeling of fullness, and used in moderation can be as effective as any other sugar substitute in weight management. Current studies[8] have shown that stevia can have a beneficial effect of lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, inhibiting the growth of skin tumors and acting as an antioxidant. It has, in fact, been used as a sweetener in Japan for over 40 years[9] and in that country is recognized for its broad range of health benefits as well as its properties as a sweetener.

One of the most important benefits of natural stevia is for diabetics; studies have shown[10] that the sweetener does not cause glucose spikes and has strong effects on insulin sensitivity. It might even encourage the beta cells in the pancreas to release more insulin. One such study even showed that participants who ingested stevia saw an 18% lower blood glucose level following a meal than those who ingested maize starch. Another showed that stevia was more effective than aspartame in controlling blood glucose.

The science behind natural stevia

It’s all well and good to talk about the health benefits of natural stevia, but what is the science to support it? While admittedly a lot of the research is preliminary, there are a lot of studies that support the health benefits of stevia, and more are being conducted every day. These studies show that not only is stevia an excellent zero-calorie substitute for sugar, it could also carry with it measurable benefits, especially in the areas of hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes treatment.

One such study out of Taipei Medical University in Taiwan[11] showed that after two years, patients who had mild hypertension showed significantly better blood pressure as compared with those who received a placebo, and there were no significant adverse effects recorded. This study was supported by another out of the same university[12] that re-confirmed the anti-hypertensive effects of stevia.

Another study out of Aarhus University in Denmark[13] looked at the effects of stevia on diabetic patients. This study found that supplementing meals with stevioside (the extract of natural stevia used as a sweetener) resulted in reduced post-meal blood glucose levels when compared to a control group. In fact, the stevioside group experienced a 40% reduction over control. Similar results were found in a Brazilian study[14] out of the Universidade de Maringá, where it was shown that stevia was effective in improving glucose tolerance in diabetic subjects.

Yet another study came out of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium[15], this one focusing on the effects of stevioside and its abilities to inhibit atherosclerosis as well as improving insulin signaling. It found that stevioside not only improved insulin signaling but bolstered antioxidant defenses in vascular walls and adipose tissues, which inhibited plaque development associated with atherosclerosis.

Are there any dangers?

There’s little doubt that the media has declared war on artificial sweeteners, citing study after study about the dangers of sugar substitutes. Most of the supposed dangers of stevia, however, are either anecdotal or the focus of fringe or preliminary pilot studies that fail to conclusively show causality. Others associate natural stevia with artificial sweeteners—an unfair comparison. It’s important to note, however, that the FDA has only approved one form of stevia (stevioside) for use in dietary form[16] and any other uses may carry unforeseen problems.

That being said, there are a few known side effects to stevia[17], which include allergic reactions, digestive problems and potential drug interactions as well as rare cases of soreness, aching muscles, dizzy spells and numbness. It’s not recommended for pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding.Those who are taking diabetes or blood pressure medication should be very careful when using stevia[18], as there are indications that it could result in hypotension or hypoglycemia (low blood pressure or low blood sugar). For a long time the FDA banned stevia entirely in the U.S., but that was due to a lack of evidence regarding its safety. Since then a wealth of science has come out to support the safety of natural stevia sweeteners, and they are now approved in stevioside form for food use in the U.S.

Stevia has been in use in Japan for over four decades and the incidents of issues are slim at best[19], so it’s a pretty safe bet that there aren’t any real risks to its use. Most studies that attack sweeteners have been criticized for various reasons.

The jury is out

Many of the negative connotations about Stevia have been challenged by known and respected academic sources[20], which point out its safe use across the world. In fact, one of the more popular current criticisms of sweeteners is that they actually contribute to weight gain and cause you to eat more; however, a proper, peer-reviewed study out of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the University of Florida and Louisiana State University[21] found no such connections whatsoever.

Most studies reporting the dangers of sweeteners have not appeared in peer-reviewed journals, but in popular periodicals such as Time magazine[22], which are fun to read and can be informative, but aren’t authoritative. Even among those that have, it’s important to note that stevia is wrongly lumped in with artificial sweeteners, as it’s not, in fact, artificial. The Mayo Clinic lumps it in with sugar alcohols[23] due to the processing that’s done to get steviocide from stevia leaves.

Finally, the lion’s share of studies that indicate these dangers have been conducted on animal subjects[24], and in the vast majority the results were obtained after feeding the test subjects such high quantities of sweetener that no human could ever possibly consume as much unless they ate nothing but sweetener all day every day for years on end.

This doesn’t meant that there are unequivocally no dangers to the use of stevia and other sugar substitutes, but it does mean that the jury is still very much out on the issue. There’s some question as to the legitimacy of the war on sweeteners that’s been all over social and mass media.

More interesting facts about stevia

While we like to call it a natural sweetener, that’s not entirely accurate[25]. In order for it to serve as the sweetener we use today, it is processed and can have other ingredients added. It’s important to look at the ingredients the next time you buy it!You can get it in powdered form and in liquid form, suitable for your morning coffee or for baking. Of course, you’ll want to remember that with the exception of stevia in the raw, it tends to be way sweeter than sugar, so watch how much you use.

However, how many different sweeteners do you know that you can grow right in your home[26] and cultivate for your own use? It’s a very hardy plant that can thrive just about anywhere from the jungles of South America to a balcony in New York City. All that’s required to grow your stevia plant is plenty of sunlight and the right nutrients (mulch) in the soil. You can pick up starter plants from many nurseries and garden centers. The leaves themselves even contain important minerals like zinc, magnesium and vitamin B3, all essential nutrients in our diets.

More and more companies are turning to stevia to produce sweets that are healthier and still delicious, from Coca-Cola Life to energy bars and protein shakes. It’s one of the fastest-growing sweeteners on the market today[27] with a 400% rise in global market share in a mere four-year period from 2008 to 2012.

Stevia vs. sugar and honey

Here’s the basics: natural stevia and sugar are both sweeteners that at their basic level aren’t chemical and have been used all over the world for centuries. Both are subject to refining and processing to obtain the form in which we commonly use them, but both are attractive to people looking for more of a natural diet. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, however[28]. Stevia is up to 3 times as sweet as sugar and has zero calories. The health benefits of stevia are recognized and scientifically backed, while the detrimental effects of sugar are well-known.

What about honey? If there’s one type of sugar that’s been the subject of a great deal of mythology in our culture, it’s honey. While honey has a range of antibiotic effects, there’s a lot of harmful myths out there about it. For example, many people think honey is safe for diabetics—this is untrue. In fact, honey has roughly the same glycemic index as sugar[29] and will cause blood sugar spikes. Honey is superior to table sugar in that it contains additional nutrients, from zinc to vitamin B complexes and magnesium, similar to stevia leaves (though not the powdered stevia extract).

While honey is superior to table sugar, if you’re a diabetic or looking to control your weight, you may be better off to turn towards stevia, which offers similar benefits but zero calories.

Cooking with stevia

As much as stevia is becoming popular as a table sweetener used in drinks, coffee, candy and the like, it’s also possible to use it in baking[30], and it’s growing in popularity in this regard as well. However, because it’s a different consistency and sweetness than sugar, and has a unique flavor all its own, it’s important to take the right approach when you use it in your home recipes.

When you cook with stevia, you’ll combine all the ingredients just like normal, but when it gets to the sugar part, look at the type of stevia you’re using. Stevia in the raw is supposedly a 1-for-1 replacement for sugar, meaning it replicates the sweetness exactly. Other forms of granulated stevia can be up to 3 times as sweet as sugar or higher. In general, you need far less granulated stevia than sugar—as little as a half teaspoon of stevia to a cup of sugar!

This means you’ll need to add what is known as a bulk filler to replace the volume the sugar would normally add. The options for this are many and varied from almond meal to egg whites or even water. Some people use applesauce, yogurt or fruit juice, but these add sugar back into the mix. If you’re using stevia to cut sugar from your diet due to diabetes or similar dietary needs, this is not likely the best idea.

The sati line

There we have it: natural stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute that not only has zero calories, it may actually be good for you! The health benefits of stevia are just starting to be thoroughly researched, but so far all the science is quite sound. It can be useful to help treat diabetes, not just in the sense that it doesn’t spike blood sugar, but that it appears to help with insulin sensitivity and production, as well as glucose tolerance. It has been shown to help with high blood pressure and has even been indicated to slow the growth of tumors on the skin.

While research continues, it’s possible that stevia may be the next superfood, and more and more manufacturers are catching on. There’s no reason you shouldn’t as well. Just be careful what you’re buying and understand that it’s far sweeter than sugar with a taste all its own, and you may be on an exciting new culinary journey that can help you live a better life.

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