Using Stevia As a Sweetener: Health Benefits & Risks

Several plants have been discovered to be of great benefit to man; they nourish humans and also protect against life-threatening illnesses or diseases; lots have been discovered while the surplus is yet to be discovered. Part of these blessings is the stevia leaf gotten from the stevia plant.

Stevia plant is a small leafy herb of South American origin. The most economically important part of the stevia plant is its leaves. Stevia leaf is a low-calorie Ancient sweetener; it is a natural sweetener that can replace sugar in homemade and commercial beverages and drinks.

Aside from being a natural sweetener, stevia leaves have several health benefits that help treat various health conditions, including tissue inflammation diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. There is more to know about using stevia as a sweetener as you read through this article.

stevia leaf

Using Stevia Leaf as a Natural Sweetener

Stevia leaf is commonly called honey leaf plant, sweet leaf, or candy leaf, in different countries across the globe. Stevia leaf is 300 times sweeter than sugar when refined; it has displaced cane sugar in several parts of the world, especially in East Asian regions and South American countries with China being the highest exporter of stevia products.

The sweetening effect in stevia leaf is produced by steviol glycosides, mainly stevioside and rabaudioside; these compounds are 300 times sweeter than sugar. They are heat stable, pH stable, and not fermentable, thus, making them have a longer shelf life. In all ramifications, stevia leaf is better and should be used as a sweetener instead of cane sugar.

Stevia is available in several forms, including liquid, powder, and granules. The stevia plant is a good alternative to sugar as it is calorie-free; it can be dried or crushed to replace cane sugar in foodstuffs like tea, sweets, sauce, confectionary, and soft drinks. It can be added to jam, yogurt, ice creams, desserts, chewing gum, and sweetened bitter medicines.

Purified stevia extracts are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS); they are certified safe by experts as good additives to food and other forms of human consumption. The recommended daily intake of stevia as recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is 4 mg/kg body weight.  

Health Benefits of Stevia Leaf

Aside from having a good sweetening ability, it also contributes greatly to the fortification of human health. These are the reasons you should use stevia instead of cane sugar. The benefits of consuming stevia include:

  • The truth about stevia is that it is 300 times sweeter than cane sugar with no detrimental effects on human health.
  • Stevia leaf extract is non-carbohydrate, thus, reducing the risk of diabetes.
  • Stevia plant has many sterols and natural antioxidant compounds like flavonoids, tannin, etc.; which help to lower blood pressure and control diabetes.
  • Stevia plant contains chlorogenic acid; this reduces the enzymatic conversion of glycogen to glucose in addition to decreasing the absorption of glucose in the gut. These actions help to reduce blood sugar levels.
  • Compounds in stevia extracts have been found to increase sodium excretion, thus, increasing urine output, dilating the blood vessels, and lowering blood pressure.
  • By its lack of carbohydrates, organic stevia leaf extract inhibits the growth of bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans in the mouth, which often causes tooth decay and damage.
  • Stevia rebaudiana leaf extract contains vital minerals and vitamins absent in other sweeteners like cane sugar.

On December 3, 2018, PureCircle, the world’s leading producer and innovator of stevia sweeteners disclosed that it had discovered a high content of proteins, soluble fibers, and antioxidants in the stevia plant.

Is Stevia Leaf Extract Safe During Pregnancy?

Yes, it is.  Stevia leaves have been recommended for pregnant women and diabetes patients as they contain no calories and it is non-carbohydrates. It is safe to use and has numerous health benefits. In 2006, the World Health Organization endorsed stevia as safe and beneficial to humans.

The Banning of Stevia 

During the early days of the discovery of stevia, it was only used as a tea sweetener. There was little or no scientific research as to its further usage. The commercialization of stevia led to its testing on animals at high doses. It was then discovered that Stevia was likely to increase the risk of certain cancers and male infertility. For these reasons, Stevia was banned in 1991.

In 1995, following complementary research on the health effects of stevia, the initial ban on stevia was revised. This allowed the usage of stevia as a dietary ingredient and sweetener; and encouraged the importation of stevia leaves and extract in the late 1990s.  

The raw stevia leaves contain various metabolites that may be antinutritional; to use stevia without any risk, the purified extracts from stevia leaves were developed. The purified stevia extracts are composed of at least 95% steviol glycosides. These compounds give stevia its natural sweet taste.

In 2008, the FDA designated the purified stevia extract as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) for usage as a natural sweetener in drinks and beverages. The raw stevia leaf and its unpurified extracts are not approved due to the presence of metabolites and antinutritional compounds in it.

Stevia extracts and its products have been approved for use in various countries including the United States, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Israel, and Norway, amongst others. In 2011, the European Union approved stevia as a dietary additive in food.

Growing stevia

Stevia can be grown in both temperate and tropical regions; it is well adapted to the temperate region. Stevia is a small plant that grows up to 2-4 feet. Like other plants, stevia requires well-drained soil, rich in organic matter. Stevia can be planted using the seeds and cuttings obtained from an established plant.  

Stevia is best planted on a raised bed in a nursery or garden. The raised bed allows easy percolation of water and air. The best practice is to incorporate organic fertilizers like animal waste or compost into the soil before planting. This ensures that the stevia plant gets a steady supply of essential nutrients as it grows.

The best fertilizer for stevia is organic fertilizer like compost and animal waste; the fertilizer can be applied during the garden bed preparation and after 6 weeks of establishment. Watering must be done daily during the cooler part of the day. I recommend it during the evening period always.

Stevia leaves are ready for harvesting after 3 months of planting. Harvesting can be done by plucking the leaves on individual plants. Stevia is a perennial, hence, new leaves will emerge after every harvest. The yield per plant declines as the plant grows; it is advisable to replant stevia every year to ensure a good harvest.

Processing And Preparation Of Stevia Leaf

The processing of stevia leaves starts from its harvest from the mother plant. After harvesting, the stevia leaf can also be dried at room temperature. The dried stevia leaves are crushed into powder that can be packaged and stored or further processed into the purified stevia extract.

The powdered stevia leaf is then steeped in hot water. The steeped stevia is filtered multiple times to obtain a purified stevia extract. This series of filtering helps to eliminate the bitter aftertaste. Also, stevia leaves can be consumed fresh and raw by adding the leaves directly into drinks as a sweetener.

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End Notes

Stevia is a naturally sourced,  zero-calorie sweetener that can effectively substitute sugar as a sweetener in drinks and beverages. Purified stevia extract is a standardized product that is commercially used as a dietary additive in food.

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