Is stevia good for you?
Get to the bottom of this sugar substitute. Nutritionist Jo Lewin explains what stevia is, how it's used and if it's better for you than sugar
There were high hopes for stevia when it was approved for sale in 2012, but has it lived up to these expectations? We take a closer look at the nutritional claims of stevia, find out where it can be found, and ask whether it's a worthy alternative to sugar.
What is stevia?
Commonly known as sweet leaf or sugar leaf, stevia rebaudiana is a widely grown plant that belongs to the sunflower family and is native to Central and South America. Studies suggest it is a safe, naturally derived, calorie-free sugar substitute. It's increasingly used to sweeten low-sugar food products and drinks.
The compound responsible for the plant’s sweetness is a glycoside, found in the plant's leaves. Steviol glycosides are said to be up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar.
More like this
How is stevia used?
Fresh leaves from the stevia plant can be used in hot or cold drinks, or on their own as an herbal tea. The leaves are dried to form a powder, which can be used in baking – 1 tsp stevia powder has about the same sweetness as a cup of sugar. It is important to note, however, that stevia does not caramelise.
Stevia-based sweeteners can be found in products including flavoured yogurts, chocolate and fizzy drinks.
Nutritional profile of stevia
With no calories, sugar or carbohydrates, stevia’s GI score is 0.
Is stevia good for you?
In tests, pure stevia extract has been found to have no effect on blood glucose levels (and may even improve the ability of the body to metabolise glucose). Studies attempting to illustrate stevia's ability to improve insulin sensitivity and benefit diabetes are showing some promise, but it is too early to draw firm conclusions.
Pure stevia extract has a bitter aftertaste, and for this reason many stevia-based sweeteners are blended with other sugars or artificial sweeteners to improve their taste. By blending them with other sweetening ingredients such as dextrose, maltodextrin and sucrose, some stevia products are capable of raising blood glucose levels. It is therefore important to read labels on products that use stevia.
Other research suggests stevia may be useful in the treatment of hypertension and management of type-2 diabetes, and it's also recognised for its anti-inflammatory properties and potential benefits for gut health. When not blended with other sweeteners, stevia contains no calories, so it can be beneficial for weight loss and for those looking for an alternative to sugar.
Is stevia better for you than sugar?
Unfortunately, many commercial stevia products are highly purified stevia extracts, and are not always as healthy as some of their 'natural' labels would lead you to believe. Like other sugar alternatives, it is the extraction and processing methods that change the properties of the whole leaf into something quite different.
In the sense that pure stevia doesn’t add calories, affect blood sugar or insulin levels, or contribute to tooth decay, it is a better choice than sugar. However, highly refined extracts perpetuate the desire for sweet-tasting foods and drinks, and therefore overconsumption is not recommended. As the long-term effects of sweeteners are still unknown, there is still more for us to learn with respect to the metabolic processes involved.
Is stevia safe for everyone?
Want more like this? Try:
Have you tried stevia? Share your experience in the comments below.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.