Stevia

Have you had your 50 heaping teaspoons of sugar today? The average American consumes between 150 and 200 pounds of refined sugar per year!1 In excess, refined sugar can be toxic, plain and simple. Artificial sweeteners are even more so. Our bodies were not designed to cope with the enormous quantities of sugar we routinely ingest. Our craving for sweets is not inherently bad, but what we choose to curb those cravings with can dramatically determine how we feel, both short and long term. Stevia, or more accurately stevia rebaudiana, is one excellent way to limit or altogether avoid refined sugar and its disastrous effects. Stevia, also called sweetleaf or honeyleaf, is a small shrub native to Paraguay and Brazil and has been enjoyed for its sweetness and medicinal properties for centuries. Today, it is grown and used around the world. In fact, stevia accounts for nearly 40% of the sweetener market in Japan2 and since the 1970s the Japanese have been using this herb as a food additive in beverages, chewing gum, and hundreds of food products.3, 4 However, it is just recently that Americans have become aware of this valuable plant. Currently there are only a handful of highly refined stevia extracts that the FDA has approved as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food products. These products contain high concentrations of Rebaudioside A (Reb-A), a compound that naturally occurs in stevia. Other, less refined versions, are approved for use as dietary supplements in the US but readily available.

Stevia’s Health Benefits

Besides replacing sugar and eliminating all the negative effects that go along with sugar consumption, some other health benefits this sweet herb provides include:

Dental Health: Research from Purdue University has demonstrated that stevia retards plaque accumulation on the teeth and suppresses bacterial growth that causes cavities.8, 5 Unlike sugar, stevia may be good for your teeth!

Digestion: Stevia has been used in Brazil as an aid to digestive functioning.6 This herb positively influences the health of the pancreas,3 which is critical to healthy digestion.

Blood Sugar: Reports suggest that stevia might help balance blood sugar levels and therefore potentially assist diabetes and hypoglycemia.7 In fact, herbalists in Brazil have been recommending stevia to regulate blood sugar levels for at least forty years.8

Bear in mind, the best health benefits come from stevia as a whole herb. When the steviosides are extracted to create the white powder or clear liquid, the medicinal and nutritive properties are reduced.

 

Stevia’s Sweetness Potential

Various glycosides, particularly steviosides and rebaudiosides, give stevia its sweetness. The stevia herb in its natural form (the green plant in leaf or ground form or dark liquid extract) is approximately 10 to 30 times sweeter than common table sugar.8 The refined stevioside forms (white powder or clear liquid extract) can range anywhere from 100 to 300 times sweetener than table sugar.8, 9 Best of all, this essentially calorie-free sweetener does not provoke an insulin reaction in the body and consequently has none of the adverse effects associated with sugar consumption.8

OK, but how does it taste? Stevia has a sweet taste that is unique, with a slight licorice-like aftertaste. The better quality products have less of an aftertaste. For some people the taste may require some “getting used to,” but most people enjoy its flavor from the start. The sweetness and taste of all forms of stevia can vary due to a variety of factors, including where and how it was grown, processing methods, and whether it is diluted or “blended” with maltodextrin or other fillers. “Stevia blends” designed to replace sugar one-for-one make substituting stevia in your favorite recipes easier, but be aware they are usually combined with other ingredients, including sugar alcohols, such as xylitol or erythritol, or fillers, such as maltodextrin. Read labels so you know what you are purchasing. (For more information on sugar alcohols see the NGVC Customer Literature File Sweeteners)

As with all foods, the less refining a product goes through, the more healthful it is; therefore, try to stick with the whole leaf products when possible. If you would like to use a white stevia powder or a liquid extract, there are many good choices, processed in a way that reduces the bitter aftertaste. It is important to experiment with different brands and forms to find what suits you best. There is also a plethora of flavored liquid stevias available which can be used to enhance the flavor of everything from water to baked goods.

Is it safe? Extensive reviews of human and animal data indicate stevia is safe.10 In the many acute and long-term toxicity tests of stevia and its sweet glycosides, there have been no indications of any toxicity or harm caused by these substances.8 A more powerful indication of stevia’s safety is the complete absence of any reports of ill effects in over 1500 years of continuous use by the Paraguayans. Similarly, over 20 years of widespread use of stevioside as a sweetening agent in Japan has not produced a single report of side effects of any kind. Compare that record to aspartame, which is the number one source of consumer food complaints to the FDA.

Cooking with Stevia

This dietary supplement is heat stable and can be used for such things as tea, lemonade, smoothies, breakfast grains, and baked goods. Oftentimes the licorice aftertaste of the whole herb as well as the bitter aftertaste of the steviosides disappears when used in the proper amounts in cooking and baking. Bear in mind, although stevia can actually enhance flavors in some dishes, it may not work at all in others. First introduce yourself to stevia by using it to replace sugar in tea or lemonade. Then try some cookie, waffle, or cereal recipes that are made to use stevia. For some recipes to get you started, you can check out the book Stevia Sweet Recipes Sugar-Free Naturally by Jeffery Goettemoeller. Stevia can also be combined with other healthy sweeteners, such as honey, molasses, and maple syrup, to reduce the amount of sweetener needed. When experimenting with your own recipes, you may need to adjust the amount of liquid used. You can also try applesauce, mashed yams, or nut butters to replace the bulk of regular sweeteners in recipes. (Conversion chart attached.)

Limitations of stevia: Because stevia contains no sugar, it cannot be used in yeast breads since the yeast needs sugar to be activated. Stevia will not caramelize and thus cannot be used for meringues. Additionally, baked foods containing stevia will not brown in the same manner as conventionally sweetened products; therefore, the easiest way to judge doneness is the “toothpick test” or by touch. This exceptional dietary supplement can provide far-reaching health benefits by helping you reduce your sugar intake. Overall, to promote optimal health, focus your sweet inclinations on natural, more healthful sweeteners and incorporate stevia where you can.

References Available Upon Request