Stevia is one of the sugar replacements that has been growing in fame over the last few years. I myself have been using it for almost 10 years and love it. But every brand and type of stevia may be different. So before adding it to your diet, it is important to know what it actually is.
What is it?
Many will be thrilled to learn that stevia is a plant. Also called Stevia Rebaudiana, it is part of the Asteraceae (Compositae) family. Which includes plants like dahlias, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, and the chrysanthemum. It is a bushy shrub native to South America but has also been grown in China and Japan since the 1970s.
Where Does the Sweetness Come From?
Stevia itself is intensely sweet and has been said to be between 100 and 300 times sweeter than sugar. To give you an idea, when I use a leaf straight from the plant I just need one small leaf in a pot with enough for two cups of tea. And if using the bought powder, I use 1/8th of a teaspoon and it is as sweet as 1½ – 2 teaspoons of normal sugar. Although different brands will vary in sweetness.
Stevia contains eight sweetening components, called glycosides. These include:
- rebaudiosides A, C, D, E, and F
- dulcoside A
Stevioside and rebaudioside A (reb A) are the most plentiful of these components. They are what make up the majority of most steviol extracts. Most manufacturers make their stevia sweeteners by extracting steviol glycosides from the leaves and then purifying them to remove some of the bitter attributes found in the crude extract. In fact, with most of the sweetness coming from the Reb-A, you will find quite a few brands of sweeteners are made by blending it with other sweeteners, such as erythritol (sugar alcohol) and dextrose (glucose).
How the Body Processes Stevia
The theory is that when the steviol glycosides reach the colon, gut microbes extract glucose molecules to use as an energy source. The liver then absorbs and metabolizes the remaining steviol. And because the steviol glycosides are not absorbed before reaching the colon they do not contribute to any calories or impact blood glucose levels.
For Human Health
There are some suspected direct health benefits to its consumption. However, they are yet to be verified. One theory, based on a few studies, is that certain glycosides in stevia extract may dilate blood vessels, improving blood pressure. The same studies showed that these glycosides can also increase sodium excretion and urine output.
Another factor is that, although in small quantities, stevia contains many antioxidant compounds. Including the flavonol, kaempferol, which is a yellow crystalline solid. And dietary kaempferol has shown to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, including cancer.
Replaces Destructive Sugars
Although any direct health benefits to consuming stevia are yet to be verified, there is a surplus of perks that come with using it as a replacement for sugar.
The FoodData Central (FDC) considers stevia as “no-calorie”. Although it does not strictly contain zero calories. But it is low enough to be classified as such. Especially taking into account how small the doses need to be in order to get that sweetened taste.
Aside from being classified as zero-calorie, stevia has shown to have minimal to no effects on many of the complex chemical balances within the body that have become increasingly problematic in modern society. Such as blood glucose, insulin levels, blood pressure, and body weight. Whereas sugar, as well as some of the more carbohydrate-rich sweeteners, will have an effect.
So by using stevia as a replacement you could be saving your body from some turmoil as well as minimising the risks of developing related diseases and disorders. And to top this off, there appear to be no side effects to using it either.
Decreases Calorie Intake
Multiple tests have shown that stevia does not increase appetite or cravings in humans. In fact, some studies have even demonstrated that subjects who used stevia instead of regular sugar experienced a reduced general hunger. So you can greatly reduce your daily calorie intake by dropping the sugar in your diet without ending up eating more calories later in the day.
Since 2008, there have been no recorded cases of allergic reactions to stevia. And, according to the European Food Safety Committee (EFSA), even the highly purified forms of stevia extract are unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.
They concluded that “steviol glycosides are not reactive and are not metabolized to reactive compounds, therefore, it is unlikely that the steviol glycosides under evaluation should cause by themselves allergic reactions when consumed in foods.”
To cultivate, stevia requires much less land, water, and energy than other mainstream sweeteners. This is mostly due to its intense sweetness which allows it to be used as an extract. But also because, in optimal conditions, farmers can harvest the plant many times in a year.
Generally, farmers require one-fifth of the land for stevia and even less water. For example, one 2013 study showed that the carbon footprint of stevia was almost 80 percent less than that of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), 55 percent less than beet sugar, and 29 percent less than cane sugar.
Possible Risks to Human Health
Many organisations approve of high-purity stevia extract, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They have established the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) as 4 milligrams per kilogram (kg) of weight. This includes children and pregnant women.
However, this only applies to purified steviol glycosides. In other words, only the purified form of stevia, which will appear in product ingredient lists as stevia extract or Stevia rebaudiana. Consumption of the plant itself is not regulated by any organisations. So any whole stevia leaves or crude stevia extracts do not yet have GRAS status. Although, this is only because there is not enough information about its potential impact on the human body. The stevia plant has not been classified as dangerous. It is more a case of being classified as unknown.
Check The Label
Although stevia itself is considered safe on many levels, including for diabetics. Many brands blend more than one ingredient in the manufacturing of their sweetener. So the final product that is bought off the shelf may contain a few other compounds that could affect the body. For example, any sweeteners that contain dextrose could add to your carb count if used on a regular basis.
In my eyes, stevia is simply great stuff. It is super sweet and works beautifully in every food or drink I have tried it in, including baking. You just need to make sure of the ingredients in whichever brand you are purchasing. And of course, get used to the taste. To be honest, I did not enjoy the taste to begin with, but it is amazing how quickly one can get used to a flavour. And then after a bit more exposure, even come to love it. And in my opinion, the list of benefits to ditching sugar while still being able to make, for example, a deliciously sweet batch of chocolate brownies, is well worth the little bit of time spent getting used to something new.