There’s been a lot of buzz in the nutrition world about stevia, and for very good reason. When it comes to natural sweeteners to use in place of white sugar, stevia truly does top the list. In fact, green leaf stevia can even support blood sugar regulation (which sugar definitely cannot claim).
Stevia comes from a plant and is completely natural (AKA, from nature) as opposed to most other no or low-calorie sweeteners (stevia also is very low calorie). Unfortunately, many artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, etc can pose some serious health risks, and could even be worse than actual sugar, in some cases.
The stevia plant originated in South America and has been used for centuries as both a sweetener and a medicine. You can find it nowadays in various forms, some of which are better than others. The specific compounds in stevia that make it so sweet are called stevioside and rebaudioside A, both of which are actually 100 times sweeter than table sugar! This means that you only need to use a very, tiny bit of stevia when replacing it with sugar in your diet.
First, let’s take a look at some of the health benefits you can reap from including stevia.
Health Benefits of Stevia
Stevia Works to Lower Blood Pressure
It is well know that high blood pressure puts us at risk for heart attacks, stroke and kidney failure, and that a diet high in sugar (especially refined sugar and carbs) is at the root cause of raising blood pressure. You might be surprised to learn that stevia can actually lower your blood pressure (1), which is pretty impressive benefit of something used as a sugar substitute. Research has primarily looked at stevioside in supplemental doses (around 500 mg), multiple times per day, and have found that both diastolic and systolic blood pressure can be significantly lowered.
More research is needed to determine the exact mechanism behind why stevioside helps to lower blood pressure, but initial studies suggest that it is due to the compound’s ability to block calcium ion channels in cell membranes, which is the same mechanism used by various pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for high blood pressure (2).
Of course, these studies have all involved higher doses of stevia that you would use normally on a day to day basis, but it certainly can’t hurt.
Stevia Lowers Blood Sugar Levels and Fights Diabetes
Another major difference between regular sugar and stevia is that stevia actually helps to lower blood sugar levels, and can even fight diabetes. With type 2 diabetes on the rise, dietary changes that support balanced blood sugar levels are crucial, and substituting stevia for refined sugar is easy and effective way to do so.
One study of type 2 diabetics found that when they took one gram of stevioside per day they experienced an 18% reduction in blood sugar compared to a control group (3).
Stevia has been studied in comparison not only to regular sugar, but also to common, artificial sweeteners like aspartame. It has always come out ahead in its ability to lower blood sugar levels. It is thought that this health benefit is due to stevioside’s ability to decrease insulin resistance (4).
Stevia Lowers LDL (“bad”) Cholesterol
Studies have also shown that stevia can help to decrease LDL cholesterol, which in turn lowers our risk of heart disease (5). Other studies have proven that supplemental doses of stevia can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, raise HDH (“good”) cholesterol and also lower blood triglycerides. Another point to take into account is that all studies that have been done on stevia and its affects on cholesterol have never done any harm to subjects.
Stevia Could Have Anti-Cancer Properties
More is needed needed, but initial studies are promising as to whether stevia could have anti-cancer benefits. A 2012 study found that stevia consumption reduced breast cancer, particularly due to stevioside’s ability to increase cell death and decreased pathways that commonly contribute to cancer cell proliferation (6). Another Croatian study found that when stevia was added to natural treatment protocols for colon cancer, antioxidant levels rose significantly, which helps to fight potentially cancer-causing free radical damage (7).
Stevia is Excellent For Weight Loss
It is well known now that a high sugar diet is one of the leading causes of obesity and weight gain (8). Stevia is a zero calorie, natural sweetener that provides health benefits and eliminates calories from regular sugar and higher-calorie sweeteners. Using stevia regularly to sweeten your food and beverages can lower your overall calorie intake.
How Can I Use Stevia?
Since stevia does have a slightly different taste and is much sweeter than regular sugar, you’ll need to learn the best ways to use it. Here are some easy ways you can start today:
Use Stevia to Sweeten Coffee and Tea
Since stevia is 200-300 times sweetener than regular sugar, you’ll only need (or want) a very tiny bit to sweeten your coffee or tea. As stevia rises in popularity, some cities around the United States offer it as an option at your neighborhood coffee shop, either in extract or powder form. Make sure the type of stevia provided is 100% pure stevia, or you can even buy a little bottle of a high quality extract to sweeten your own drinks when out on the town.
Use Stevia as a Substitute for Sugar in Baking
Substituting stevia for sugar in baking can definitely be done, but it might take some experimentation, as stevia can add a slightly different taste to your baked goods. General recommendations suggest substituting 1 cup of sugar for 18 to 24 stevia sweetener packets, 1/3 to 1/2 teaspoon of undiluted stevia powder or 1 teaspoon of a liquid stevia extract (9).
As is often the case in baking, experimentation is a good idea. You could try making a tiny batch of what you want to make and see how it turns out, then adjust accordingly.
Make a Healthier Version of Lemonade
Lemonade is a refreshing and delicious beverage, but most are packed full of sugar. Instead, try using just one teaspoon of green leaf stevia to a quart of water with 8-10 freshly squeezed lemons. This also dramatically lowers the calorie count of your lemonade.
Make Your Own Simple Syrup
Whether you want simple syrup to make your own iced coffee drinks or to add to happy hour cocktails, its easy to make this natural syrup in your own kitchen. All you need is two cups of water and 1/4 cup of pure leaf stevia powder. Bring your water to a boil and then add the stevia. Boil until all stevia is completely dissolved, and allow to cool. You can store it in a jar in the refrigerator to use as needed.
Which Type of Stevia Should I Choose?
There are a lot of brands now marketing stevia, and it can be a bit confusing. Green leaf stevia is the most natural form of stevia, and is basically just the dried and ground leaves of the stevia plant. Many people find it has a better taste, as well (no bitter after taste). This type of stevia has no calories or sugar, and also isn’t as sweet as extracts or other, more processed versions. Green leaf is the healthiest form of stevia.
Other versions include stevia extracts that come either in powder or liquid form and usually use the less bitter and sweeter compound of stevia, rebaudioside. Extracts vary in pureness and quality, so look for an organic, pure stevia product. These are much sweeter than green leaf stevia, so you’ll only need to use an extract in very small amounts.
Other forms of stevia are altered/processed versions like Truvia. These versions barely resemble stevia in its natural form, and are often GMO (genetically modified organisms) and/or highly processed. These versions are the ones more likely to result in digestive distress, and are far less healthy options than both green leaf stevia and pure extracts or powder.
There you have it, all of your stevia questions, answered. Make this simple switch today and know you are making a good decision for your health.