Native to South America, the Stevia plant has been used for hundreds of years there, not only as a sweetener, but also in the production of medicines. Beginning in the mid 1990s, Stevia leaf extracts have been available in the United States. These extracts can be used in many foods as a non-caloric sweetener in the place of sugar.
The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has conducted multiple studies on Stevia over the past several years. Research shows that the use of Stevia does not interfere with insulin or affect blood glucose levels. Diabetics may also find that managing their caloric intake is much easier with this supplement since Stevia has no calories.
Stevia and Blood Sugar Levels
Diabetics have used artificial sweeteners for years in an attempt to better control blood sugar levels. Many of these sweeteners have recently been under scrutiny in regards to their unknown effect on the body. Trying to eliminate sugar, other sweeteners such as honey and molasses, have been substituted, but these can also cause significant elevations in blood sugar levels. Stevia can provide the sweetness desired while avoiding these kinds of spikes in blood sugar. The simple act of using Stevia reduces the consumption of sugar, which in itself can help control blood sugar levels more efficiently.
Stevia and the Glycemic Index
The glycemic index measures the affect of foods on blood glucose levels. The higher ranking foods enter the bloodstream quickly, causing a higher spike in blood sugar and thus triggering the release of insulin. The lower ranked foods are released slower and therefore do not cause such drastic changes. Understanding this is key to maintaining proper blood sugar levels. Stevia has a glycemic index of zero, which means it does not raise blood sugar levels at all. In contrast, honey has a glycemic index of 87, while glucose and sucrose have an index rating of 100.
The Safety of Stevia
In the 1970s, after banning many artificial sweeteners due to the uncertainty of their effects on health, the use of Stevia extracts became very popular in Japan. Many baked goods and cereals are still made using the extract today. The Japanese have reported no health related problems in association with their long-term use of the plant.
The results of clinical studies meet the JECFA purity criteria and show that Stevia has no affect on blood glucose response or blood pressure. This is especially important in showing safety for use by diabetics. Closely monitoring blood sugar levels is still recommended. The FDA has given Stevia the okay by acknowledging that it is generally regarded as safe. To date, no allergies have been associated with the use of Stevia sweeteners. The herb should be avoided during pregnancy.
As with any nutritional supplement, talk with your doctor before using Stevia in conjunction with prescription drugs. Lithium, diabetic medications and drugs for hypertension have the possibility of interacting with Stevia.