Sugar has received plenty of negative attention lately and with good reason.
It is widely recognized that excessive sugar intake can contribute to a wide array of diseases.
Diabetes and obesity may come to mind first, but evidence is mounting that sugar may play a part in the development of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and more.
Modifying your consumption of added sugar is one risk factor that is entirely under your control. Reducing your intake of added sugars is an obvious first step toward transforming your health, but is there a safer, natural alternative to sweetening food when a recipe calls for it?
History of Stevia
The stevia plant is naturally found growing in South America (Brazil and Paraguay to be specific). For around 400 years, parts of the stevia plant have been used to sweeten food as well as serve a variety of purposes in traditional medicine in these regions of the world.
The leaves of the stevia plant contain both steviol glycosides and rebaudiosones, which are the fancy terms given to the molecules that make the stevia plant sweet. These sweet little molecules are extracted from the stevia plant by crushing the leaves and steeping them in water, after which the plant material is removed, and the remaining liquid is further purified, leaving only the stevia extract behind.
The stevioside extract has a slightly bitter aftertaste, while the rebaudiosone extract does not. Both are extremely sweet – tasting between 10 - 500 times sweeter than sugar, depending on its form.
Forms of Stevia
There are several available types of stevia:
- The first type, green leaf stevia, is the least processed. Green leaf stevia is made simply by drying and crushing the leaves of the stevia plant into a fine powder. It is this form that has been used traditionally as a sweetener or for medicinal purposes. Green leaf stevia powder is approximately 30-40 times sweeter than sugar. While it is incredibly sweet, because it is minimally processed it will retain some of that bitter aftertaste.
- The second form is crude stevia leaf extract. This is a liquid form of stevia, and usually comes in a small bottle, with a dropper to deliver the small amount necessary for sweetening food and beverages. Stevia extract can be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar. After the stevia leaves have been dried and crushed, they are steeped in water to remove the sweet molecules. This type of stevia may also still retain a bitter aftertaste, so it may be helpful to try a few brands as well to see which one you like best.
- Further refining of the extract creates a stevia product that is 300 – 500 times sweeter than sugar. This process removes the steviosides that give the less processed versions the bitter aftertaste. What remains are the rebaudiosides (Reb A), which do not have that bitter tasting quality. Only a tiny amount is needed to provide an intensely sweet flavor.
Often, another substance is added to the stevia to create more bulk in the finished product. You want to be sure to avoid any products that include additional ingredients other than stevia leaf. Some manufactures add artificial sweeteners to stevia brands to modify taste and save on costs.
Research is still being done to further understand the possible health benefits associated with stevia. Initial studies indicate that stevia can lower blood pressure.
Stevia rates as a zero on the glycemic index, which means that it does not raise blood sugar at all. Diabetics who choose to use stevia may want to pay close attention to their blood glucose levels to make sure that no adjustments to their diabetic medication are needed.
Stevia and You
With all of the negative attention that sugar is receiving, and the global surge in type 2 Diabetes, the world is in need of a healthy sugar substitute. The list of unhealthy and even harmful sugar substitutes is already long enough, and science is struggling to find other options. Perhaps nature has provided the answer already in stevia.