As obesity has reached epidemic proportions all around the world, people have started turning away from sugar.
To replace the sweet flavor, many have turned to artificial sweeteners that are made in a lab.
However, there is a natural option available that has become very popular in the past few years and decades.
It is called Stevia.
Stevia is a Natural, Zero Calorie Sweetener
In South America, a shrub called Stevia Rebaudiana has been used as a sweetener and medicinal herb for centuries.
Sweeteners derived from the plant are either extracts of the leaves or some of the isolated sweet compounds.
The most potent sweet compounds in the Stevia leaf are called Stevioside and Rebaudioside A and they are both many hundred times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia tends to have a bitter after taste. Rebaudioside A has the least bitterness and is therefore most popular for commercial Stevia based sweeteners.
Bottom Line: Stevia is a natural sweetener with no calories. The most common Stevia-derived sweeteners are called Stevioside and Rebaudioside A.
Stevia May Reduce Blood Pressure
If you have elevated blood pressure (hypertension), there is evidence that Stevia may be of significant benefit.
In a study of 106 Chinese subjects taking placebo or 750mg Stevioside per day (1):
- Systolic blood pressure went from 166 to 153 – a 8% decrease.
- Diastolic blood pressure went from 105 to 90 – a 14% decrease.
In another study, this time with 174 Chinese individuals taking placebo or 1500mg Stevioside per day (2):
- Systolic blood pressure went from 150 to 140 – a 7% decrease.
- Diastolic blood pressure went from 95 to 89 – a 6% decrease.
In the second study, there was also a much lower incidence of Left Ventricular Hypertrophy in the Stevia group, which is a thickening of the heart and one of the consequences of high blood pressure.
Bottom Line: Stevia appears to lower blood pressure in humans, but only when it is already elevated.
Stevia Can Improve Glycemic Control in Diabetics
In humans, a cross-over study comparing 1g of Stevioside to 1g of Maize Starch showed that the Stevia group had 18% lower blood glucose levels after a meal (8).
Another study comparing sucrose, aspartame and Stevia revealed that Stevia reduced both blood glucose and insulin after a meal compared to the other two sweeteners (9).
Bottom Line: Stevia may be helpful for glycemic control in diabetics, but this definitely needs more research in order to make any recommendations.
Stevia Has Health Benefits in Animals
Most of the studies on the health effects of Stevia were done on rats.
In these studies, Stevia had anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, anti-tumor, diuretic and immunomodulatory effects (10).
Bottom Line: Multiple studies in rats show health benefits for Stevia.
Stevia Appears to be Safe in Humans
Stevia has an outstanding safety profile in both humans and animals.
There were some studies done many years ago that showed harmful effects in lab animals, but they used ridiculously high dosages and this probably has no relevance to regular human consumption.
Whether this zero calorie sweetener will be associated with weight gain like the artificial sweeteners (in the context of a Western diet) hasn’t been answered yet.
Take Home Message
If you want to sweeten something, Stevia is your best choice by far.
The taste can vary greatly between brands, so you may want to try different brands until you find something that works for you.