Many people have a sweet tooth, but when it comes to excess sugar content in food, it becomes a problem for weight watchers and diabetics. Therefore, Stevia has become a household staple. Calorie-free, easy-to-use Stevia has replaced sugar in restaurants and dining tables at home as well.
Stevia has been around for ages in kitchens and grocery store shelves, but many are unaware of the fact that Stevia is a plant, not just a brand name. Stevia is a small, leafy herb that was discovered more than 200 years ago. It is 300 times sweeter than natural sugar and adds an equal amount of sweetness to food and beverages and was also used in medical treatments in ancient times.
Common myths about stevia
The popular sugar substitute also has a downside. Back in 1991, the FDA banned stevia in the US due to claims that it could cause cancer. Later, researchers refuted the claim, and soon FDA allowed stevia to be imported to the US again. There are many rumors about stevia being all-natural or an artificial, synthetic substance that uses a tiny bit of the Stevia rebaudiana plant.
According to nutritionist Maya Feller, MS, RD, CLC, and CDN, "Stevia is a non-calorie sweetener derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant's components, and it is actually 200 times sweeter than table sugar. It should be further noted that only the compound and extract of stevia is used and currently regarded as safe."
FDA-trusted sources also claim that stevia glycosides, such as Reb-A, are generally recognized as safe. The FDA has not approved whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extract for use in processed or packaged foods and beverages due to lack of research and safety information. Raw stevia herb may cause significant harm to kidneys, the cardiovascular system, and the reproductive system. It may also be responsible for dropping blood pressure levels or interact with the medications that help regulate blood sugar.
Stevia might tip calorie count
Although stevia is generally considered safe for people with diabetes, some dextrose or maltodextrin brands should be used carefully. Dextrose is a type of glucose and maltodextrin is a type of starch. These ingredients are not precisely 'fat-free' as they add a little amount of carbohydrates and calories to the extract. Sugar alcohols are also responsible for slightly tipping the carbohydrate count.
Using stevia in controlled amounts may not be enough to impact the blood sugar levels, but using it throughout the day might defy the purpose and add to the calorie count. According to a 2019 study, a possible link between non-nutritive sweeteners, including stevia, and disruption in the healthy gut bacteria is detected. The same study also claims that non-nutritive sweeteners may also induce metabolic disorders and glucose intolerance.
Another major downside of stevia is taste. Stevia has a mild flavor, like licorice, and it slightly bitter. Some people tend to enjoy the taste while others despise it. Some people also complain about digestive problems, diarrhea, and bloating when they started using stevia products regularly.
Stevia, made with Reb-A, if used moderately, is safe during pregnancy. If a person is sensitive to sugar alcohols, they should choose a stevia brand that doesn't contain erythritol. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol used as a food additive and sugar substitute. It is made of fermented corn and enzymes and occurs naturally. Generally, whole-leaf stevia and crude stevia, including home-grown stevia, is deemed unsafe to use during pregnancy. A common myth surrounding stevia as a highly refined product is considered safer than a natural product.
The link between stevia and cancer
There is some evidence that supports the notion that stevia may help keep some cancers at bay. According to a 2012 study conducted by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, a glycoside known as stevioside found in stevia plants may help promote cancer cell death in human breast cancer. It may also help eliminate some mitochondrial pathways that help cancer grow. Other studies also support these findings. It was found that many glycoside stevia derivatives are toxic to some types of leukemia, stomach, lung, and breast cancer cell lines.
Using stevia as a sugar substitute
A pinch of stevia powder is equal to a teaspoon of regular sugar. Stevia can be used in coffee, tea, cereal, lemonade, smoothies, yogurt, etc. Some stevia brands like Stevia and Raw can replace sugar entirely unless they are used in baking as they give a licorice-like aftertaste to baked goods like cookies and cakes. These brands recommend using half the total amount of sugar in the recipe with their stevia-based product.
Other stevia brands are not made specifically for baking; therefore, it is recommended to use a lesser amount. Extra liquid or bulking agents like applesauce or mashed bananas are a good substitute for the lost sugar component. After some trial and error, the desired texture and sweetness will be achieved.
Stevia products that are made with natural Reb-A extract are considered safe for people who have diabetes and also for can be consumed during pregnancy. There is a rare chance of these products, causing any side effects. However, more extensive research is required to fully support the claim and provide enough conclusive evidence on glucose-level management, weight management, diabetes, and other health problems.
Since stevia is 100-300 times sweeter than table sugar, it is advisable to use it in low doses. Whole-leaf stevia is still not approved for commercial use, but people can grow it in their kitchen gardens for home use. Some claim that using whole-leaf stevia wouldn’t cause harm if used cautiously, but it is still not recommended during pregnancy. Adding raw stevia leaf to a cup of tea might not cause damage immediately, but it might affect the gut bacteria and metabolism in the long run. One should seek doctors' and physicians' approval before using stevia regularly, especially if they have a severe medical condition such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.