Is stevia good for you?
There were high hopes for stevia when it was approved for sale in 2012, but has it lived up to 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 have shown it to be a safe, naturally derived, calorie-free sugar substitute and is increasingly used to sweeten food 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 sugar.
Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out more about your recommended daily amounts, find all the answers in our sugar hub: All you need to know about sugar. Discover our full range of health benefit guides and learn more about stevia.
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 – one teaspoon of stevia powder is about the same sweetness as one cup of sugar. It is important to note, however, that stevia does not caramelise. Stevia-based sweeteners can be found in products including yogurts, chocolate and fizzy drinks.
With no calories, sugar or carbohydrates, stevia’s GI score is 0. Stevia was only approved for sale in the EU in 2012, and it was hoped it would prove useful for diabetics looking for a naturally derived, low-calorie sweetener.
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 any firm conclusions.
Pure stevia extract has a bitter aftertaste and for this reason many stevia-based sweeteners are blended with other sugars and 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 claim to be stevia.
Other research suggests stevia may be useful in the treatment of hypertension and the management of type 2 diabetes and it is also recognised for its anti-inflammatory properties. 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.
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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 over-consumption 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?
Have you tried stevia? Share your experience in the comments below..
This article was last reviewed on 28 June 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
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_
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