For most people, sugar is the only sweetener they use when making their cup of tea or cup of joe, baking, and sometimes cooking. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans use an average of 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day.
While sugar is naturally available in grains, dairy, vegetables, and fruits, refined sugar has a bittersweet reputation, particularly when it comes to health. Consequently, many people choose to find natural and healthy substitutes for sugar for a range of reasons, including reducing their calorie intake.
A sweetener that has come onto the scene over the last few years is Stevia. Stevia can be used to sweeten your drinks, cereals, and more. Since Stevia is relatively new to the market and to our palates, we haven’t heard much from the health community about whether or not this new sweetener is safe, at least until recently. We found expert advice to help you understand the benefits and risks of this natural sweetener.
What Is Stevia?
The full scientific name for the Stevia we see on supermarket shelves is Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni). Stevia is a natural sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia plant. The plant is part of the sunflower family, and there are over 150 species of Stevia, native to Paraguay, that are now being cultivated and used all over the world.
Stevia is about 200 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose (sugar), but it contains no artificial ingredients, calories, and carbohydrates. However, not everyone likes its taste — some people say it tastes like methanol because of its bitter aftertaste. Stevia is sweet because of a component it contains called glycosides. It contains eight different glycosides. The most common glycosides are:
- Rebaudiosides A, C, D, E, and F
- Dulcoside A
Of the eight glycosides, Stevioside and rebaudioside A are the most abundant.
As of 2018, the FDA has declared stevia leaf extracts as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). In 2019, the European Food Safety Authority also found no safety concerns regarding Stevia. Go ahead and indulge in this new sweetener that you can be guilt free about!
Uses of Stevia
Stevia is available as blends and pure extracts, which can be powders or liquids. You can use it as you would use refined sugar — simply sprinkle it on your favorite cereal or sweeten your drinks with it. Alternatively, use Stevia drops in your coffee, smoothies, yogurt, or water to add flavor. You can also cook with Stevia — just don’t use too much of it. Some brands offer a conversion chart to assist with the substitutions in your recipes. Be sure to check the sugar-to-Stevia ratio on the product label before adding it to your savory dishes.
When baking with Stevia, don’t expect to get the same results that you would get with sugar. This is because the sweetener doesn’t have the same chemical properties as sugar. Stevia will create a different texture for your bread, cookies, and cakes than sugar will.
Today, more than 5,000 food and beverage products use Stevia as an ingredient. Some typical examples include candy, bread, yogurts, sauces, desserts, ice cream, soft drinks, and chewing gum. You’ll even find branded Stevia products, such as Truvia, EverSweet, Pyure Organic, and SweetLeaf. When comparing these products, such as Truvia vs Stevia, you’ll see that they’re not all the same. For example, Truvia contains Stevia, but it’s extracted from its roots, not the leaves. It also has other ingredients, such as natural flavoring and erythritol.
Health Benefits of Stevia
As a substitute for table sugar, Stevia sweeteners may offer different health benefits. According to the FoodData Central (FDC), it’s a zero-calorie sweetener, making it a better option than calorie-rich sucrose. The sweet-tasting components in Stevia occur naturally, and this qualifies it as a healthy alternative for weight loss and diabetes control. Studies have revealed that it has no effect on blood glucose in diabetic patients, allowing them to consume a variety of food options than before.
In the American diet, added sugar accounts for 16% of total calories, and this high percentage contributes to obesity and overweight. Stevia sugar contains nearly zero calories, making it an ideal option to add to your weight-loss diet. It’s even keto-approved — feel free to use it in tea, coffee, and baked goods at home.
Stevia also makes a healthy option for parents that don’t want their kids to consume artificial sweeteners. Excessive calories and sugars are common causes of childhood obesity and weight problems. Today, parents have limitless less-calorific food options, ranging from candy to soft drinks, thanks to Stevia.
Like most plant-based foods, Stevia contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants making it an especially healthy non-sugar sweetener.
Side Effects and Risks of Stevia
According to the FDA, refined extracts of Stevia, such as Reb A, are safe for human consumption, including consumption by children and pregnant women. This means they can be used in products without posing any risk.
You shouldn’t be worried about experiencing side effects as long as you use highly purified Stevia. Also, remember to use it in moderation. The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) amount is 4 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of body weight. However, if you’re allergic to sugar alcohol, beware of Stevia products that contain it as an ingredient. Sugar alcohol sensitivity can lead to diarrhea, nausea, bloating, and abdominal cramps.
Misuse of Stevia products can lead to dehydration, fatigue, headaches, constipation, nausea, overheating, mood swings, low blood sugar, and low blood hypertension. It’s also worth noting that steviol glycosides are a type of steroid, so they can interfere with endocrine system hormones, as revealed in a 2016 study.
Is Stevia One of the Healthiest Sugar Substitutes?
Generally, Stevia isn’t bad if you use it as recommended. Just keep in mind that it’s sweeter than table sugar — you’ll need to be careful with your measurements during substitutions.
Whether you prefer powder or liquid Stevia, it’s vital to read the product details on the label whenever you’re using it. You can add this non-nutritive sweetener to your beverages and meals without sacrificing taste. In many food products, it’s listed in the ingredients list as Rebaudioside A (Reb-A), steviol glycoside, or Stevioside.
You can also grow the Stevia plant in your home garden and use its leaves to sweeten your beverages and foods. Some people prefer the whole-leaf Stevia and even claim it’s a safe alternative to its highly refined counterpart.
While Stevia is an ideal sugar substitute, researchers still don’t comprehend the full range of side effects and risks associated with it. A 2017 review of Stevia’s health complications and outcomes concluded that not enough studies had been done to make an informed judgment. As you use it, it’s crucial to adhere to the provided guidelines.
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