Dietary requirements, supplements, and superfoods are all the different focus points I consider when concentrating on a diet that is exactly right for me. I like to keep my diet as natural and as healthy as possible. In particular, I try to avoid sugar because it contains a high-calorie count, which makes weight loss difficult, and it attributes to tooth decay. It can be difficult to choose an alternative to sugar when there are so many different ones available on the market. Let’s dive a little deeper into one of the top natural sweeteners available and its health benefits: stevia sweetener. For those who have not heard of this, you may be wondering what is stevia sweetener and is it really a good sugar alternative?
What is Stevia Sweetener?
The Stevia plant is native to South America and is closely related to Ragweed, Chrysanthemums, and Marigolds. Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni is the most prized variety and has been used for over 1500 years by the people of the region, Brazil, and Paraguay as medicine as well as food. It has been referred to as ka’a he’e which means “sweet herb” and was used to treat several ailments such as burns, stomach problems, colic, and to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. It was also traditionally used for baking sweet treats.
Stevia can be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar depending on the variety that you buy and can be bought in liquid drops, dissolvable tablets, or a powdered form. Specific blends are also available that are more suitable for baking.
Stevia is typically made from the leaves of the stevia plant. The 2 steviol glycosides that give the leaves its sweetness are called Stevioside and Rebaudioside. When looking for a stevia product, you want to look for one that is made from Stevioside and Rebaudioside A, as that is the sweetest part of the plant. The rest of the leaf can leave a bitter aftertaste in your mouth. Rebiana or Reb-A is the abbreviated name for Rebaudioside A, which is stevia extract.
Reb-A is PH stable, heat stable (which makes it great for cooking and baking), and is non-fermentable. It has zero calories, zero carbohydrates, and contains various vitamins and minerals which are often lost when the plant is processed into a sweetener. In its unprocessed form, stevia is high in nutrients such as magnesium, niacin, zinc, calcium, phosphorus, chromium, potassium, and vitamins A and C. The leaves contain fibre and protein, as well as over 100 phytonutrients.
Health Benefits of Stevia Sweetener
Research has shown that stevia can help destroy breast cancer cells. Steviosides enhance cancer cell death and help to block the growth and spread of gastrointestinal cancer cells.
Stevia can reduce blood sugar levels slightly and increases insulin sensitivity which can promote sugar control in diabetics.
Because stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener it can replace our common table sugar which is processed and loaded with calories. A good quality stevia product will help to reduce our sugar intake because it is much sweeter: this will protect us from obesity and other health problems linked to the over-consumption of sugar.
Research shows that stevia effectively improves “good” HDL cholesterol, decreases triglycerides, and lowers levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. This means that your heart is kept healthy and your cholesterol levels are maintained.
Certain glycosides in stevia extract are found to dilate blood vessels and increase sodium excretion, both of which help support healthy blood pressure levels.
Side Effects and Daily Intake
Chronic consumption of stevia has been found to decrease male fertility in animal studies and may affect hormone levels. It has also been found that stevia may affect the beneficial bacteria in your gut and cause other metabolic and digestive problems. More research needs to be done to confirm these findings, but it is suggested that daily intake is monitored to prevent these side effects.
Some people have reported mild side effects such as bloating, nausea, dizziness, and muscle pain. If you have an allergy to ragweed, then stevia may cause the same reaction. If you experience any of these side effects, consider looking for a brand that is less processed and has no fillers.
For best results, stevia should be taken in moderation and if you experience any side effects consider reducing your intake.
A daily intake of 4mg per kg of weight is recommended. Consuming more than this recommendation may lead to unwanted side-effects.
Other natural sweeteners
If you are exploring the use of a sweetener instead of sugar, the natural route is supported. Natural sweeteners provide nutrients and can boost our health, whereas artificial sweeteners are chemically produced (like aspartame and sucralose) and can have harmful side effects that are damaging to our overall health and may cause long term damage to our body. Unfortunately, natural sugars still undergo processing and refining which means they are generally high in calories, something to consider when stevia sweetener has no calories at all. Natural sweeteners can also cause health problems such as weight gain, poor nutrition, and tooth decay.
Raw honey is the best natural sweetener of choice. It does have a higher number of calories but offers positive health benefits. Honey has natural enzymes and antioxidants as well as iron and zinc to name a few. Be mindful of what honey you purchase because some honey is chemically altered or manufactured which may offer more harm than good to your health. However, unlike stevia sweetener, honey breaks down to glucose and fructose which offers potential health complications.
Coconut sugar has fewer calories and offers some great benefits since it is unrefined, but it is not as sweet, which means you need to use more if you want to achieve the sweeter side of the alternative. Using more coconut sugar is definitely not a recommendation since it has the same number of calories as table sugar and is very high in carbohydrates and fructose. Coconut sugar is not a good option for those who suffer from diabetes and prioritise weight loss. Stevia sweetener is a better recommendation because it does not negatively impact people who have diabetes because of its ability to reduce blood sugar levels. You also need less stevia extract to obtain the sweetness you are looking for.
Maple syrup offers some great health benefits because it is high in antioxidants and rich in many minerals, including potassium, calcium, iron, manganese, and zinc. Unfortunately, despite the wonderful complement to improving health benefits, maple syrup is high in calories and may aggravate diabetes and contribute to weight gain.
Xylitol is classified as a sugar alcohol. Both xylitol and stevia sweeteners are safe to use for people with diabetes since they do not cause a sudden increase in blood sugar. They also do not cause tooth decay and offer the same sweetness, if not more, than table sugar. Unfortunately, even though the count is fairly low, xylitol does contain calories and it has been found to offer a laxative side effect: causing diarrhoea and bloating if consumed incorrectly.
Organic Stevia for the win!
The extraction process, plant source, and added fillers can affect the taste and the health benefits of stevia sweetener. Since not all stevia is created in the same way it means that not all varieties will match equally in taste and health benefits. Green leaf stevia is the least processed of all varieties. It is made from dried leaves that are ground into a powder and is likely a good combination of Stevioside and Rebaudioside. It will be 10-15 times sweeter than regular sugar. Purified extracts are also available, but these are comprised of Rebaudioside which is a processed version of stevia, but research suggests that it is on par with the unprocessed stevia when comparing the health benefits. The least healthy, and the stevia sweetener you want to avoid, are the stevia blends. These are blends that contain other sweeteners, and extremely little of the stevia plant remains in the blend. Some of these are made using chemical solvents which can be toxic to your nervous system.
Stevia sweetener is one of the most used alternatives to sugar consumption and after reading about the sweetener in a little more depth, it is understandable why more people are choosing this healthier alternative. I know I am certainly in favor of it having no calorie count! If you are looking at switching to stevia because of its health benefits, be sure to look for a good organic brand that is unprocessed or has a water-based extract and made from dried leaves. Remember to not exceed the daily recommended consumption if you want to avoid uncomfortable side-effects.
Until next time