Controversy about sugar substitutes has raged for years. With the introduction of stevia to the fray, has a safe sugar substitute finally become easily available?
What Is Stevia?
Stevia is making its way into more and more products as a low-calorie, natural sweetener. But what exactly is stevia, and what makes it different from other sugar substitutes like aspartame and Splenda?
Stevia refers to several species of herbs, related to sunflowers, whose leaves provide an intensely sweet extract. Use of these leaves can be traced to South America. Japan has used stevia as a commercial sweetener since the 1970s, and continues to consume more stevia than any other country in the world. In this country, stevia makes up nearly half of all sweeteners, and is used in colas and even as a substitute for table sugar.
In the 1990s, the US ruled that stevia could not be used as a sweetener in food items such as soft drinks, but allowed it to be sold as a supplement. Many people began to use it as a sweetener in this form, until 2008 when stevia extracts were finally approved for widespread use. Now there are many products with stevia and stevia derivatives making their way onto the market, including soft drinks and other traditionally high-calorie items.
Advantages of Stevia
Unlike aspartame and other sugar substitutes, stevia has very little effect on blood glucose. Some sugar substitutes have been shown to produce a rebound effect, in which the substitute triggers the body to produce additional, unneeded insulin. Due to this effect, some studies have even shown that sugar substitutes can cause people to gain weight rather than helping them lose it.
Stevia does not have this effect on the body, making it a sweetener of choice for many people suffering from diabetes or other forms of glucose intolerance. Some studies even indicate that using stevia may increase overall glucose tolerance. In addition, stevia may prove to be effective in treating high blood pressure, obesity, and possibly even osteoporosis.
Stevia extracts can be found in most health food stores. It is easily added to tea, coffee or other foods. Stevia extracts usually come in a powdered or liquid form. Only a small amount is necessary to sweeten a cup of tea, since stevia extracts are nearly three hundred times as sweet as table sugar.
Some stevia sweeteners have a licorice-like aftertaste. Not the chemical aftertaste of saccharine or aspartame, it is still off-putting to some people. Those trying stevia might want to experiment with different brands and types–for example, powder versus liquid–to see which tastes best. The way the stevia is processed can have an effect on its flavor, so some brands might taste different from others.
Overall, evidence seems to indicate that stevia is not only a safe sugar substitute, but is also much healthier than many other options. With its naturally derived origins, long history and lack of glucose-related side effects, it seems poised to become a sweetener of choice for many people who are otherwise leery of sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners.