Stevia is a South American plant, native to Paraguay that has long been used to sweeten beverages and make tea. As many as 1500 years ago, the Guarani people of Brazil and Paraguay, discovered a native plant with delicious green leaves that had an unbelievable sweetening power. When they chewed just a few leaves or added crushed leaves to hot “yerba mate” (a bitter tea-like drink), the leaves sweetened the drink, just like our modern-day sugar.
Gradually, they found that this sweet plant they called “kaa he-he” (which means “sweet herb”) had other uses besides its sugary taste. Ancient history tells us that natives used this sweet plant for softening skin, aiding digestion, nourishing the pancreas, balancing blood sugar, smoothing wrinkles, and healing blemishes, sores and wounds.
In 1887, Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, director of the College of Agriculture, first learned of what he described as “this very strange plant” from Indian guides while exploring Paraguay’s eastern forests. Bertoni named the plant Stevia Rebaudiana in honour of a Paraguayan chemist named Rebaudi who would later identify the plant’s sweetness component. Stevia Rebaudiana is the most prized variety out of 200+ species. He found that a fragment of the leaf only a few square millimetres in size sufficed to keep the mouth sweet for an hour and a few small leaves was sufficient to sweeten a strong cup of coffee or tea.
In 1931, chemists M. Bridel and R. Lavielle isolated the two glycosides that make stevia leaves sweet: stevioside and rebaudioside (with five variations: A, C, D, E and F). Stevioside is sweet, but also has a bitter aftertaste that many complain about when using it, while isolated rebaudioside is sweet without the bitterness. Rebaudioside A, aka rebiana, contains the highest sweetest and is used commercially as an artificial sweetener in foods and beverages.
In the 1960’s, the Japanese government highly regulated chemical additives in their food supply. Once they discovered and established its safety, Japan became one of the first to use stevia on a large scale commercially. Recognising that stevia was a safer choice than aspartame and saccharin, by 1988 stevia had been added to ice cream, bread, candies, pickles, seafood, vegetables and soft drinks. By 1994 stevia reportedly comprised 41% of the sweet substances consumed in Japan.
Over the years the Japanese have conducted extensive studies to confirm stevia’s safety. Today stevia grows and is used in 10 other countries including China, Germany, Malaysia, Israel and South Korea.
Three Types of Stevia
When it comes to the options available today, it’s vital to know that not all stevia is created equal. In fact, there has been concern in recent years about counterfeit stevia, or products laced with unwanted ingredients. Here are the three main types of stevia which you may come across:
1. Green Leaf Stevia: the least processed of the types. The leaves are dried and ground into powder form. This is the type that’s been used in South America and Japan for centuries as a natural sweetener and health remedy. Green leaf stevia is only about 10-15 times sweeter than sugar. This unprocessed version more than likely contains a combination of steviosides and rebaudiosides.
2. Purified Stevia Extracts: If you’re eating this natural sweetener you are consuming rebaudioside A in either a pure extract or our third type (altered blends). These extracts contain over 95% or more pure rebaudioside A glycosides and may not contain other forms of rebaudiosides or steviosides in order to be legally marketed as food. While purified stevia extracts are more processed than green leaf stevia, their health benefits seem to be on par with its unprocessed counterpart.
3. Altered Stevia Blends:the least healthy option. By the time a product like this is placed on a shelf, very little of the stevia plant remains. Some companies use processes to create these blends that include chemical solvents, including acetonitrile, which is toxic to the central nervous system, and a GMO corn derivative called erythritol (in the US). The small amount remaining contains rebaudioside A only. Many purified stevia extracts and altered blends are reported to be 200-400 times sweeter than sugar.
If you stick to green leaf stevia or the purified extract you will be able to reap some of its amazing benefits. They have 30 to 150 times the sweetness of sugar, are heat-stable, pH-stable, and not fermentable. The sweet component of the plant is known as steviol glycosides which are found in the leaves. The body does not metabolise the glycosides in stevia, so it contains zero calories like some artificial sweeteners. The green stevia and its extract’s taste that has a slower onset but longer duration than that of sugar, and some of its extracts may have a bitter or liquorice-like aftertaste at high concentrations.
Stevia actually contains eight glycosides. These are the sweet components isolated and purified from the leaves of stevia. These glycosides include: stevioside, rebaudiosides A, C, D, E, and F, steviolbioside and dulcoside A. As mentioned before, stevioside and rebaudioside A (reb A) are the most plentiful of these components.
Research has shown that stevia sweeteners do not contribute calories or carbohydrates to the diet. They have also demonstrated no effect on blood glucose or insulin response. This allows people with diabetes to eat a wider variety of foods and comply with a healthful meal plan.
Another review of five randomised controlled trials compared the effects of stevia on metabolic outcomes with the effects of placebos. The study concluded that stevia showed minimal to no effects on blood glucose, insulin levels, blood pressure, and body weight.
In one of these studies, subjects with type 2 diabetes reported that stevia triggered significant reductions in blood glucose and glucagon response after a meal. Glucagon is a hormone that regulates glucose levels in the blood, and the mechanism that secretes glucagon is often faulty in people with diabetes.
Stevia contains no sugar and very few, if any, calories. It can be part of a well-balanced diet to help reduce calorie intake without sacrificing taste. By keeping your sugar and calorie intake in a healthy range, you can help fend off obesity as well as many health problems linked with obesity, like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
If you choose to replace table sugar with a high-quality stevia extract and use it in moderation, it can also help you decrease your overall daily sugar intake. This is why stevia is very popular for low-carb diets like Paleo or the keto diet.
Certain glycosides in stevia extract have been found to dilate blood vessels and increase sodium excretion, two things that are very helpful to keeping blood pressure at a healthy level. Evaluation of two long-term studies (one and two years in length, respectively) gives hope that it may be effective in lowering blood pressure in hypertensive patients. However, data from shorter studies (one to three months) did not support these findings.
A 2003 study showed that stevia could potentially help lower blood pressure. The study suggested that the stevia plant might have cardiotonic actions. Cardiotonic actions normalise blood pressure and regulate the heartbeat. However, further research is required to confirm this benefit of stevia.
Improves Cholesterol Levels
Results of a 2009 study showed that stevia extract had “positive and encouraging effects” on overall cholesterol profiles. It’s important to note that researchers also found that there were no adverse stevia side effects on the health status of the subjects involved in this study. Researchers concluded that the extract effectively decreased elevated serum cholesterol levels, including triglycerides and LDL (“bad cholesterol”), while increasing good HDL cholesterol.
In 2012, Nutrition and Cancer highlighted a groundbreaking laboratory study that, for the first time ever, connected stevia consumption to breast cancer reduction. It was observed that stevioside enhances cancer apoptosis (cell death) and decreases certain stress pathways in the body that contribute to cancer growth.
The journal Food Chemistry published a study out of Croatia showing that when it is added to natural colon cancer-fighting mixtures, such as blackberry leaf, antioxidant levels soar (when tested in a lab). Together, these studies suggest its potential as a natural cancer treatment.
Stevia contains many sterols and antioxidant compounds, including kaempferol. Studies have found that kaempferol can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer by 23 percent.
Recipes for Health
Stevia is available online or at most health food stores, both in powdered and liquid form. Keep in mind that the best stevia should have no additives, including other sweeteners, and is certified organic and non-GMO certified. The liquid varieties are useful for sweetening coffee, teas or healthy smoothies. Powders work best for cooking and baking — and a little goes a long way.
Try these basic conversions the next time you replace sugar with this natural sweetener:
1 teaspoon sugar = 1/8 teaspoon powdered stevia = 5 drops liquid
1 tablespoon sugar = 1/3 teaspoon powdered stevia = 15 drops liquid stevia
1 cup of sugar = 2 tablespoons powdered stevia = 2 teaspoons liquid stevia
The only substitution that won’t work is caramelisation in desserts, as it doesn’t brown like conventional sugar.
Cinnamon & Clove Hot Chocolate
· 2 cups almond milk (or preferred choice of non-dairy milk)
· 1 1/2 tbsp raw cacao or chocolate
· 1 tsp cinnamon
· 1/2 tsp ground cloves
· pinch salt
· 1/4 tsp stevia
1. In a pot, stir the cacao or chocolate, cloves, stevia and salt into the almond milk on medium heat until everything is well combined and dissolved. I recommend using a whisk and constantly stirring while heating the mixture.
2. Serve hot, sprinkle some cinnamon on top and enjoy!
Notes: You can substitute stevia with your natural sweetener of choice (e.g. honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup…) while adjusting measurements for your preferred sweetness!
· 115 g cream cheese
· 4 eggs
· 1 tablespoon melted butter
· 1 tablespoon Stevia
· 1 teaspoon vanilla
· 4 tablespoons coconut flour
· 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
· Pinch salt
1. Blend all ingredients in your blender.
2. Pour into greased waffle iron.
3. Makes 2-3 waffles depending on your waffle maker.
Most people do well with this natural sweetener, but listen to your body: It is an herb, and everyone’s body may react differently to it. The benefits and possible side effects really depend upon what type you choose to consume. Some people find that this natural sweetener can have a metallic aftertaste.
Multiple global regulatory bodies have determined that high refined and purified stevia extract is safe for consumption by the general population within the recommended levels, including children. Governing bodies have established an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 4 milligrams per kilogram (kg). These organisations include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the FDA.
Some stevia products also contain sugar alcohol. People with sensitivity to sugar alcohol may experience bloating, abdominal cramps, nausea, and diarrhea, though one type of sugar alcohol, erythritol, poses less risk of symptoms than others.
In general, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice before using it if you have an ongoing medical condition or take other medications. There aren’t any contraindications (interactions) with medications at present, but your healthcare provider will help to give you advice to make sure you don’t use it in excess.
To Sum Up…
Stevia Rebaudiana is an intensely sweet-tasting plant that has been used to sweeten beverages and make tea since the 16th century. Research shows that the stevia plant was used by indigenous people to sweeten medicines and foods. In fact, due to its sweet taste and flavour-enhancing abilities, the stevia plant was traditionally used as far back as 1500 years ago.
Stevia sweeteners contain zero calories, which means foods and beverages that use stevia sweeteners are usually lower in calories. Extensive research has shown that stevia does not contribute any sugar to the diet and does not affect blood glucose or insulin response, which means stevia is safe and appropriate for use by people with diabetes and those wishing to lose weight. On top of that, stevia has also shown to have amazing qualities for fighting cancer as well as having heart-protecting properties, such as controlling blood pressure and improving your cholesterol profile. Nonetheless, the potential health benefits of stevia require further study as well as discovering what other benefits it holds.
With all of these benefits it’s hard not to introduce such sweetness into our diets. Just remember that not all stevia products are the same. Choose your stevia products wisely and opt for the green leaf or the purified extract varieties to enjoy the natural sweet taste and health promoting benefits.