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Stevia is an intensely sweet-tasting plant that has been used to sweeten beverages and make tea since the 16th century.
The plant is originally native to Paraguay and Brazil but is now also grown in Japan and China. It is used as a non-nutritive sweetener and herbal supplement.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the marketing of stevia as a food additive in 1987. However, stevia regained its status as a sweet, sustainable dietary ingredient in 1995. The sweetener has since soared in popularity, with a 58 percent boost in new products that contain stevia.
This breakdown looks at the characteristics, uses, health benefits, and side effects of stevia, as well as considering its overall safety.
Fast facts on stevia
- Stevia is primarily grown in Brazil, Paraguay, Japan, and China.
- The natural sweetener tastes 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar.
- Stevia can be classified as “zero-calorie,” because the calories per serving are so low.
- It has shown potential health benefits as a healthful sugar alternative for people with diabetes.
- Stevia and erythritol that have been approved for use in the United States (U.S.) and do not appear to pose any health risks when used in moderation.
Stevia, also known as Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, is a bushy shrub that is part of the sunflower family. There are 150 species of stevia, all native to North and South America.
China is the current leading exporter of stevia products. However, stevia is now produced in many countries. The plant can often be purchased at garden centers for home growing.
As stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. It typically requires about 20 percent of the land and far less water to provide the same amount of sweetness as other mainstream sweeteners.
Stevia contains eight glycosides. These are the sweet components isolated and purified from the leaves of stevia. These glycosides include:
- rebaudiosides A, C, D, E, and F
- dulcoside A
Stevioside and rebaudioside A (reb A) are the most plentiful of these components.
The term “stevia” will be used to refer to steviol glycosides and reb A throughout this article.
These are extracted through a process of harvesting the leaves, then drying, water extraction, and purification. Crude stevia, the processed product before it is purified, often carries a bitter taste and foul smell until it is bleached or decolored. It takes roughly 40 steps to process the final stevia extract.
Stevia leaves contain stevioside in a range of concentrations up to around 18 percent.
Some of the common trade names for stevia sweeteners are:
- Stevia Extract In The Raw
As an alternative to sucrose, or table sugar, using stevia as a sweetener carries the potential for considerable health benefits.
Stevia is considered “no-calorie” on the FoodData Central (FDC). Stevia does not strictly contain zero calories, but it is significantly less calorific than sucrose and low enough to be classified as such.
The sweet-tasting components in stevia sweeteners occur naturally. This characteristic may benefit people who prefer naturally-sourced foods and beverages. The low calorie count qualifies Stevia to be a healthful alternative for diabetes control or weight loss.
Here are some of the possible health benefits of stevia.
Research has shown that stevia sweeteners do not contribute calories or carbohydrates to the diet. They have also demonstrated no effect on blood glucose or insulin response. This allows people with diabetes to eat a wider variety of foods and comply with a healthful meal plan.
Another review of five randomized controlled trials compared the effects of stevia on metabolic outcomes with the effects of placebos. The study concluded that stevia showed minimal to no effects on blood glucose, insulin levels, blood pressure, and body weight.
In one of these studies, subjects with type 2 diabetes reported that stevia triggered significant reductions in blood glucose and glucagon response after a meal. Glucagon is a hormone that regulates glucose levels in the blood, and the mechanism that secretes glucagon is often faulty in people with diabetes.
Glucagon drops when blood glucose climbs. This regulates the glucose level.