Stevia, aspartame, saccharin, sugar alcohols, neotame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, honey, agave nectar, high-fructose corn syrup; if you are one of those people who have a taste for sweet fare and concoctions but are in a health situation where you have to watch your sugar or caloric intake, you may have turned to one or more of these sugar substitutes to satisfy your craving. But a nagging question may be lingering at the back of your mind: Have you gone for a healthier alternative or are you just putting your health at further risk?
Remember that sweet stuff, whether it’s the table sugar that we are all familiar with or it’s the next available sweetener, can work in ways that can both make or break your health. Even natural sweeteners, which for years have been on the market or found on the table of a dieter or a diabetic, always have a case for and against their presumed effects on one’s health. Such is the case for stevia, one of the increasingly popular natural sweeteners sold in the market.
3 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Stevia:
- What is stevia?
Stevia is a plant-based sweetener derived from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, an herb that grows in abundance in Brazil, Paraguay, and other countries in South America. Stevia became widely cultivated in North America and in many parts of Asia like Japan, India, and China to serve a growing number of consumers when stevia health benefits and its sweetening characteristics were discovered and made the subject of scientific research.
The plant Stevia has leaves that produce a sweet and delicious juice when extracted. It is said to be 15 to 30 times sweeter than table sugar when the juice from the leaves is derived through a natural process of extraction. However, when it is extracted and crystallized using a chemical process, it can be as much as 200 to 300 times sweeter than refined sugar.
- What are the stevia health benefits?
As a natural sweetening agent, stevia offers the same sweetness as that of sugar, honey, molasses and other natural sweeteners. Unlike aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), and sucralose (Splenda), stevia does not pose risks of compromising one’s immune system or exposing one’s self to carcinogens that studies have found to be associated with the consumption of artificial sweeteners.
Before it was approved by the US Food and Drug Association in 2008 as safe for public consumption, stevia was already being used as an herbal drink and a natural dietary supplement because of its proven health benefits. Scientific studies have revealed that some of the nutrients found in the said herb are calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and zinc. Stevia is also known for being an excellent source of fiber.
Since the human body does not metabolize glycoside, a compound that gives stevia its sweet taste, this natural sweetener is an excellent sugar alternative for those who wish to lose weight or would like to manage their blood sugar level. Research carried out in South America and Japan also confirmed that aside from regulating insulin levels, stevia strengthens the pancreas, which in the long run may reduce the risks and symptoms of hypoglycemia and diabetes. Other known stevia health benefits are the management of hypertension, reduction of gas and acid reflux in the stomach, aid in digestion, and inhibition of the growth of gum disease-causing bacteria.
- Are there dangers to using stevia?
Is stevia safe for your health? After years of research, there is still no conclusive study of the potential health dangers of this herb to humans. However, a study conducted prior to the 2008 US FDA health certification for stevia hinted on some of its potential dangers when used in animals. This study found that there is a correlation between stevia consumption and a reduction in sperm production and increased levels of infertility among male rats. Female rats exposed to stevia were also observed to have fewer offspring than those who weren’t.
Meanwhile, a handful of researchers have found out that stevia poses no conclusive danger to animals and humans in terms of cancer development. In fact, a 1997 study showed that female rats exposed to stevia had decreased exposure to breast tumors compared to others who were not on a stevia diet.
When evaluating the potential risks and benefits in using stevia, remember that all sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners have some good and bad features especially if used in excess. Even natural sweeteners can be unhealthy if they are consumed in huge quantities because they can markedly raise blood sugar levels.
Always remember that in using sweeteners like stevia, the key is to manage your health condition properly and not to abuse your body with the food you take in.