What is Stevia: Benefits, Nutrition and Uses
Do you remember those mum plants that appear in the supermarket during the fall season? Well, they have a sweet cousin called stevia. Stevia is a natural sweetener. To call it sweet is an understatement. In fact, stevia is so intensely sweet that some people actually consider it to have some bitter edge to its taste. Makes any sense? Many people have considered this plant as a healthy alternative to processed sugar and artificial sweeteners. It is also used as a herbal supplement in some situations. If this is the first time you are hearing about stevia, you may be forgiven (where have you been, though), as many people do not know about the plant yet. However, this plant has been in use as early as the sixteenth century to make tea and sweeten beverages. Stevia was first found in Paraguay and Brazil. Currently, it is also being grown in Japan and China. Its popularity has been rising steadily in recent years, as it is being used in many products. In this blog article, we will take a closer look at stevia, and bring to light its benefits, nutritional value, its uses, and side effects (if there are any). So, buckle up! This should be fun.
What Exactly Is Stevia?
Stevia, also called Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni, is a plant that is native to Paraguay and Brazil. Its fresh green leaves have been a source of sweeteners for many people for hundreds of years. In the 1970s, Japan adopted the plant as its popularity grew across the country. Later, it extended to China. In the United States of America, it was not until about a decade ago that it became a popular sweetener. Currently, it is widely used as a healthy alternative to artificially processed sugar. This is because stevia is considered a zero-calorie sweetener. Another fact that makes this sweet plant more popular than sugar is its potency. Stevia is at least two hundred times more potent than sugar. Impressive, right? Stevia contains eight sweet components called glycosides, which are isolated from the leaves of the plant and purified separately. Stevia goes by different names when it is added to products. Currently, there are thousands of products that have it. Here are some of the names you may find written on the label of products to indicate that they contain stevia:
- High-purity stevia
- Rebaudioside A
- Stevia extract
- Stevio glycoside
- Stevia leaf extract
How Is Stevia Made?
Stevia comes from plant leaves. This makes it a natural sweetener, as compared with artificial sweeteners, which are made in labs. However, before it is used as a sweetener, it goes through processing. This means that you hardly eat the raw plants when you buy any stevia product. To process it, stevia is first harvested and dried. Next, the dried leaves are steeped in hot water. As mentioned earlier, the stevia plant contains eight sweet components. These are stevioside, rebaudioside A, C, D, E, and F, steviolbioside, and dulcoside A. Stevioside and rebaudioside A are the most contained in the stevia leaves. What is usually referred to as stevia, is a combination of steviol glycosides and rebaudioside A. After the dried leaves are steeped in hot water, the liquid is stirred and filtered to extract the steviol glycoside and rebaudioside A components. It is then purified to remove the foul smell, color, and bitterness the raw plant comes with. After the extraction, some additives like dextrose or maltodextrin are added to it. These additives help to reduce the intensity of the sweetness to make it easy to consume or add to foods. The process of extracting stevia takes about forty different stages. Stevioside makes up to about nineteen percent in concentration in a stevia leaf.
Nutritional Value And Benefits Of Stevia
When it comes to nutritional value, stevia is considered a zero-nutrition sweetener. The reason is that it contains only one gram of carbohydrate per one teaspoon serving. It also contains also one gram of sugars per one teaspoon of serving. It contains no calories, no fat, no protein, no other nutrient. Thus, stevia adds nothing to your calorie intake when you consume it. To put this information into proper perspective, it is better to compare it with granulated table sugar. Still using one teaspoon as the measure, granulated table sugar contains sixteen calories, no protein, no fat, four grams of carbohydrates, four grams of sugars, and no fiber. When you compare the two, it is clear that granulated table sugar is carbohydrate. Plus, it contains a lot of calories per teaspoon. This makes stevia different as its nutritional value is almost nonexistent. Other sweeteners like maple syrup and honey also contain similar (if not more) amounts of nutrients to granulated table sugar. Thus, this makes stevia an ideal alternative for table sugar.
Benefits Of Stevia
Now that we have learned that stevia offers a healthier alternative to table sugar or sucrose. Let us consider some possible benefits of this natural sweetener.
It has been proven through research that stevia sweetener does not contribute to any increase in calories and carbohydrates in the body. Since it almost contains zero sugars and has no effect on insulin response in the blood. Also, it has no effect on blood glucose. It is, therefore, a healthy option for people with diabetes, as it allows them to consume a wider variety of meals that require sweetening, without worrying about their blood sugar levels. Research has further shown that stevia has no effect on blood pressure. The great news is, a controlled research of randomly selected participants with type 2 diabetes, it was proven that consuming stevia actually triggers a significant reduction in glucagon response and blood glucose.
- Weight Loss And Weight Control
Obesity is one of the biggest health problems facing our modern society. There are various causes of overweight. Increased intake of foods high in fat, high energy foods, and inactivity are some of the causes. Another cause of overweight that is steadily on the rise is the increased intake of foods with added sugar. It has been proven to contribute an alarming sixteen percent of the total calories in a lot of American diets. Stevia offers an excellent solution for people who need to cut down on their sugar intake without necessarily quitting the intake of sweeteners.
- Blood Pressure And Pancreatic Cancer
Stevia plays a role in maintaining a healthy blood pressure level. It contains certain glycosides that have been suggested to dilate blood vessels. Aside from that, the glycosides are capable of increasing the amount of sodium excretion in urine. This goes a long way in lowering the blood pressure. In addition to that, some studies have shown that stevia may have some role to play in maintaining a healthy heart. It does so through cardiotonic actions which ensure that the heart beats at a normal rate while normalizing blood pressure. However, there is still further research required to make this certain.
Concerning pancreatic cancer, stevia may contain antioxidants and many sterols and kaempferol. Kaempferol is proven to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer by twenty-three percent.
- Ideal For Children
Children love sweets! And a lot of snacks and beverages for children are filled with processed, artificial sugar. Research has shown that children are increasingly at risk of having several heart-related problems before they reach twenty-five years of age. Food and beverages that contain stevia instead of processed sugar will ensure that children eat healthy in addition to a balanced diet. Also, stevia decreases the number of calories found in most sweets and snacks. Consuming too much sugar and calories may also put a child at risk of cardiovascular diseases and obesity. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of products on the market that contain stevia, which is naturally sourced. These range from beverages and snack bars to salad dressings. What this means is children will be able to consume sweet but healthy foods without the problems of added calories.
Side Effects Of Stevia
Several studies that have been done on stevia to determine its safety have concluded that the sweetener does not come with any side effects. There were some early concerns that stevia could pose some dangers to the kidney. However, after research was conducted on rats, it was observed that the leaves of stevia in the form of supplements could actually protect the kidney and minimize the risk of diabetes. Stevia has also been cleared to be safe for consumption during pregnancy as long as one sticks to the recommended amount.
There are some products that contain sugar alcohol. This can result in bloating, nausea, abdominal cramps, and nausea for people who are sensitive to sugar alcohol. But generally, as long as stevia is properly purified and consumed in moderation, it causes no side effects.
It is clear that stevia offers a healthy alternative to the artificial sweeteners currently available on the market. Although the leaves of the stevia plant are edible, they go through stages of purification and extraction before they are made into edible sweeteners. Stevia is friendly to the heart and helps in managing weight problems. It can be consumed by all ages and can be added to a balanced diet for a healthier eating habit. If consumed properly, it causes no side effects.