Stevia: What It Is, Health Benefits & How to Use It

Not all sweeteners are created equal. There are tons of sugar substitutes competing to make their way into your beverages and food. Near the top of this list is Stevia, an FDA-approved sweetener, that claims to be 100% natural and zero calories. But does the hype live up to the truth?

Sugar – we’re all eating way too much of it. [1] Of this, we are mostly indulging in refined sugar added to donuts, candy, and oftentimes, juice. It has become fairly understood that refined sugar is very harmful to both our health and waistlines. [2] As a result, there has been an incredible rise of alternatives to artificial sugar and to low-to-no calorie options. These days, there are many sweeteners on the market that won’t contribute to diabetes or obesity like refined sugar will. Perhaps the most popular of these is stevia. Stevia claims to be “100% natural,” and is a zero calorie sweetener with numerous health benefits. [3]

What Is Stevia?

stevia-substitute.jpgBut before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we must cover what exactly stevia is. Found in South America, stevia starts out life as a green, leafy plant. Interestingly, in some cultures, it has been around (and used) for centuries. In these cultures, it was mostly used for medicinal purposes. [4] If you were to find stevia out in the wild, you might notice its sweet, very potent flavor. But this is where things get more interesting. The plant found in the wild is very different from the sweetener most of us are using. Though you can buy the whole plant (or crushed leaves), most purchase an extract, either in powder or liquid form. Other products use a highly refined type of stevia’s sweet elements.

Stevia is a natural leafy plant, hundreds of times sweeter than sugar!

Even though these forms are not natural stevia, are they still better than sugar? When it comes to the stuff you find on your local grocery store shelf, the most important compounds found in stevia are stevioside and rebaudioside A. These compounds are the sweetest elements found in the plant, and are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar.

Most Studies Use Stevioside

When it comes to examining any food or sweetener, we must always peruse the scientific literature to see what the research actually says. When it comes to this area, it is important to note that almost all of the studies use stevioside. Even though stevia is “natural,” it is highly processed. The benefits of almost every relevant study are actually based on high doses of stevioside. [5]

Stevia And Blood Pressure

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The devil is in the details when it comes to the health benefits of stevia. None of the studies I’ve reviewed show benefits from using an-off-the-shelf product. They were almost all conducted with large doses of stevioside. However, one must take note of these studies, since there are revealing results. Stevioside has been shown to help with blood pressure, and it also has anti-hyperglycemic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immunomodulatory effects. [6]

The research on stevioside is still very early, and researchers aren’t sure why or how it may help blood pressure. One theory is that stevioside may act by blocking calcium ion channels. [7] If this is true, stevioside would be acting in a similar way to some blood pressure lowering drugs. Now, before you get your hopes up, remember that this was with very concentrated doses of stevioside, rendering it nearly impossible to get this effect from just sweetening your food(s) with stevia.

Stevia May Help Reduce Blood Sugar

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Diabetes has become a true pandemic, plaguing hundreds of millions of people worldwide. [8] Interestingly, stevioside has been studied as a potential treatment in those with this condition, to moderately good effect. One study showed a reduction in blood sugar of just over 15% in those who took stevioside. [9]

Stevia might help reduce blood sugar in the long run.

Other studies show that stevioside may help with the production of insulin, though the research is still early. [10] Stevia – while not entirely “natural” – is definitely a much better alternative than sugar. As with most things, though, moderation is key. Don’t drown your food in it, thinking it will automatically make you healthier.

Other Health Benefits Of Stevia

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Other studies have shown that stevioside may decrease oxidized LDL cholesterol, which could help prevent heart disease. [11] Other scientific studies have shown that stevioside may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. [12] It must be noted that not all of these studies were in humans, and they may not translate in effectiveness. Also of importance is that the amounts of stevioside tended to be quite high in these studies. This doesn’t mean that stevia isn’t beneficial, but instead it may mean that there are limits to its benefits.

Is Stevia Safe To Consume?

stevia-1.jpgThe studies conducted so far on stevia seem to show it is very safe in the amounts most of us consume. [13] Interestingly, though, a study done by Yale University showed that sweeteners like this may sometimes cause weight gain. [14] So whatever choice you decide on, keep your amounts moderate and under control.

Different Types Of Stevia

When it comes to buying stevia, there is a simple formula for avoiding bad flavors. Buy organic, with no unnatural additives, and avoid added alcohol. Many products have alcohol added, giving it a strange aftertaste. Some people prefer the liquid kind, while others prefer the powder form. If possible, try the various products before you purchase to ensure you get a brand you like.

Stevia Is Sweeter Than Sugar

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Stevia isn’t simply a sweetener you can add to dishes. It can be added to coffee, tea, and smoothies, and can also be used for baking. Oftentimes erythritol is mixed with stevia, especially in recipes. Since it’s so much sweeter than sugar, it is important to remember that a little bit goes a long way.

So, Is Stevia Natural?

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Since most of us are looking to replace sugar with something more natural, we must ask – is stevia truly natural? The answer is: sort of. While it comes from a plant, it would be difficult to call what we consume “natural.” There are even more confusing circumstances, since substances like Truvia only contain the rebaudioside – not the beneficial stevioside.

Stevia might be better than refined white sugar, but remember to use it sparingly.

Green leaf stevia is by far the best choice when it comes to getting as close as possible to natural. This is the kind used in traditional countries, and is still 30 times sweeter than sugar. Here, the leaves have been dried and ground into a powder format. If you want to keep things natural, look for this type of stevia, and use it sparingly.

The Bottom Line

Stevia is not all it is cracked up to be. Nonetheless, it is still one of the best options when it comes to replacing sugar in one’s diet. Remember, stevia is beneficial for at least two big reasons. One, there are potential medicinal properties that may help with healing. Secondly, by using stevia instead of sugar, we are avoiding the cause of most illnesses, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. This has many benefits, regardless of the other benefits of stevia. If you need a little sweetness in your life, stevia is a good way to obtain some without all the downfalls of sugar. Just remember, moderation is key.