What is stevia?

This sugar replacement has grown in popularity in recent years, but what is stevia and how can we use it?

What is stevia?

Stevia is a plant-based sweetener and alternative to sugar. It’s derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, which comes from the chrysanthemum family and is native to Brazil and Paraguay. The stevia products we buy on the shelves are made from a heavily refined version of the plant’s leaf. The refined product is between 150 and 200 times sweeter than sugar! You’ll usually find it in a blend with other sweeteners in commercial products. 

It has the benefit of being a natural sweetener – it’s not made from synthetic chemicals in its pure form.

Though it may seem that the sweetener has grown massively in popularity in recent years, it has actually been used for centuries. The Guaraní peoples of South America have been using the plant for hundreds of years. They referred to stevia as the ‘sweet herb’ and have a long history of its use in their teas and medicine. 

What are the benefits?

Stevia is a non-nutritive sweetener, which means it contains next to no calories. It’s a good option for those who are looking to lose weight, especially compared to sugar, which has around 20 calories per teaspoon. Unlike sugar, stevia won’t spike insulin levels either.

Studies also show that using the sweetener over sugar significantly lowers insulin and glucose levels in the blood. This is likely to reduce the likelihood of insulin resistance and be helpful for diabetics. Researchers also report that those who ate stevia felt satisfied and full, despite the lower calorie intake. 

A 2009 study found that 20ml of stevia a day for a month lowered the so-called bad’ cholesterol levels in participants and increased their levels of ‘good’ cholesterol. This can help to contribute to good heart health. 

What’s more, this sweetener is also heat stable, meaning it can be used in baking.

Are there downsides?

The major downside of stevia is that it doesn’t taste exactly like sugar. It has a mild, almost liquorice taste. It isn’t a direct replacement for sugar given its flavour profile and sweeteners with stevia also tend to be much more expensive than sugar.

There have been reports of side effects including bloating, nausea and excess gas, though these are often found with sugar consumption too and usually only when excessive amounts are eaten. There is some data to suggest it may also disrupt microbial activity in the microbiome, but these studies have come from mice fed excessively large quantities. The same has not been shown with small amounts ingested by humans. 

There are also some reports that stevia can cause an allergic reaction. Be mindful if you’re allergic to any plant from the Asteraceae family such as daisies, ragweed, chrysanthemums, and sunflowers.

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