The negative health impact sugar can have (especially when over-consumed) has led to an abundance of alternative sweeteners. Stevia is one such sweetener that has shot to popularity, but the health benefits of stevia go far beyond just its sweet taste.
Although new to us as something to put in tea and coffee, stevia has been used for thousands of years as an herb.
It's a good alternative to both sugar and artificial sweeteners and has benefits for managing diabetes and supporting weight loss. Here's more about stevia, its major health benefits, and everything else you need to know.
What Is Stevia?
Stevia is a green and leafy plant native to South America and used for more than a thousand years by the indigenous Guarani people. It also goes by the names of sweetleaf, sugar leaf, and its botanical name: Stevia rebaudiana.
You should know that "stevia" can refer to either the plant itself or to the more processed extract that's commonly sold as a sweetener. There's a big difference between the two, which we'll get to later.
Stevia leaves are known for being anywhere from 30-300 times sweeter than sugar depending on how concentrated they are. The sweetness comes from compounds called glycosides, specifically stevioside and rebaudioside.
Along with glycosides, stevia contains beneficial antioxidants. It's also considered a non-caloric sweetener and doesn't cause blood sugar spikes like cane sugar can. (1)
Types of Stevia
Green leaf stevia: The least processed version of stevia is known as green leaf. It's still slightly processed by being dried and usually powdered. This version keeps most of the beneficial nutrients intact including vitamin C, folic acid, and several amino acids. It's about 20-40 times sweeter than sugar. (2)
Stevia extracts: In its raw state, stevia has a slightly bitter taste that some people object to. Extracts of stevia get rid of this bitterness and keep only the sweetness by separating out the rebaudioside A glycosides. This process removes most of the nutrients contained in the leaf. Stevia extracts are typically 100-200 times sweeter than sugar.
Altered stevia: Many companies take stevia extract and add other sweeteners and ingredients to it to come up with a product that is very processed and sweet: 200-400 times sweeter than sugar. These blends are often labeled as natural, but they lack just about all of the health benefits stevia leaf possesses.
If you want to try stevia as an alternative sweetener, the best form to use is the green leaf form. You can buy it as a powder, find it in certain herbal tea blends, and even grow it yourself.
Pure stevia extracts are the next best choice, but stay away from altered and highly processed stevia blends.
Health Benefits of Stevia
Helps Diabetics with Blood Sugar Levels
One of the biggest health benefits of stevia is that it can be a healthy sugar replacement for diabetics. Artificial sweeteners that originally were recommended for diabetics have come under a lot of scrutiny for their negative health impact, but stevia is different (and natural).
Sugar can cause blood sugar spikes, while stevia does not. It's thought that stevia is broken down and absorbed by bacteria in the colon instead of entering the blood stream. This keeps blood sugar levels stable, which is very important for diabetics. (3)
Keep in mind that these benefits are only for stevia leaf and pure extracts. If you buy an altered blend, the stevia may be combined with other sweeteners that are harmful.
Supports Weight Loss
High sugar intake is unfortunately a part of the normal American diet. If you want to lose some weight or keep from gaining more, stevia is a practically zero-calorie sweetener that can help. (6)
Calories from sugar make up on average 13% of the daily calorie intake for the U.S. population. This high calorie intake from sugar is especially prevalent among children, teenagers, and young adults. (7)
Cutting out all these calories by using stevia could have a drastic impact on calorie intake. Of course, there's more to weight loss than just how many calories you consume, but lowering sugar consumption can have a big impact.
Stevia also has lots of potential to help prevent children from becoming overweight or obese by allowing them to still enjoy sweet treats without the calorie load.
Benefits Oral Health
The health benefits of stevia extend to your mouth where it may help to prevent cavities (unlike table sugar). Stevia is good for oral health because it doesn't contain something called "fermentable carbohydrates".
Fermentable carbohydrates include different sugars and starches that react with bacteria in your mouth to form acids. These acids can start to break down tooth enamel, which can lead to cavity formation.
In addition to containing no fermentable carbohydrates, stevia has antimicrobial properties that can prevent harmful bacteria from forming in the mouth. This makes it a useful natural sweetener for toothpastes and mouthwashes. (8)
Promotes Heart Health
Stevia may help with heart health by helping to lower bad cholesterol levels, improving good cholesterol levels, and lowering high blood pressure. Certain antioxidants in stevia may also help to reduce inflammation in the body.
Steviosides, one of the types of glycosides found in stevia, have shown the potential to relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure. They were also shown in a long-term (2-year) study to significantly decrease systolic and diastolic blood pressure as compared to a placebo. (9)(10)
Several studies have also demonstrated that stevia extract can have a positive effect on overall cholesterol levels. (11)
Keep in mind that using stevia occasionally in your tea or coffee probably won't be enough to significantly impact either blood pressure or cholesterol levels, but it certainly won't hurt.
Uses for Stevia
The best type of stevia to use is an organic green leaf stevia or purified extract. It's available as both a powder and a liquid.
You can use stevia in much the same way as you would sugar: in tea and coffee, in baking recipes, to sweeten yogurt or homemade sodas, and so on. You'll just need to experiment to find the right amount of stevia to use since it is a lot sweeter than sugar.
Stevia powder works the best for baking and cooking, although you can use the liquid form if you adjust your amount of dry ingredients. Powder and liquid both work for sweetening beverages, and the green leaf form makes a great addition to herbal teas because it can be steeped along with the other herbs.
Stevia doesn't generally have any side effects, but in can trigger an allergic reaction in certain people, especially those who are allergic to ragweed.
It may cause other mild side effects like nausea, headache, and bloating.
Have You Tried Stevia?
If you're looking for a natural sweetener that's diabetic-friendly and can help with weight loss, stevia might become your go-to.
More health benefits of stevia are likely to be discovered as this newly popular herb becomes the subject of more research studies. For now, you can enjoy stevia as a guilt-free and healthy alternative to sugar in all your favorite drinks and baked goods.