Stevia is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener found in over 14,000 foods and beverages around the world. Stevia is a calorie-free, very sweet-tasting plant extract that has gained popularity as a sugar substitute. Its popularity has grown in recent years, thanks to its reputation as a more “natural” sweetener than common lab-made artificial sweeteners (it comes from a leaf extract). You will find the sweetener widely available under many store brands for use at home.
What is Stevia, and how is it made?
Stevia, or Stevia rebaudiana, is a plant native to South America. People in this region have been consuming the leaves as a source of sweetness for hundreds of years. It became popular as a sweetener in Japan in the 1970s, but it wasn’t a top sweetener until a decade ago. Today, the extract is very popular as a calorie-free sugar alternative.
Since stevia is added to thousands of products, you only need to read the ingredient label to find out if stevia is present. However, stevia is known by many names, which can sometimes make its presence difficult to spot. Here are the ones to look for:
high purity stevia
Stevia leaf extract
Steviol glycosides (E960)
Rebaudioside A (Reb A)
A closer look at how stevia is made
Unlike artificial sweeteners, which are made in a laboratory, stevia does come from plant leaves. But it needs to be processed before it gets to your table or in your food – you’re unlikely to eat the leaf itself. The leaves are first harvested, dried and soaked in hot water. The liquid is then strained and squeezed to obtain an extract of the intensely sweet components of the leaf called steviol glycosides. It is then mixed with a number of additives, such as dextrose or maltodextrin, to tone down the intense sweet taste so that it can be easily incorporated into foods.
Stevia vs. sugar: how do they compare nutritionally?
Per teaspoon (4 grams) here are the nutritional stats for table sugar:
As you can see, table sugar is a carbohydrate. What’s more, all of its carbs (and all of its calories) come from sugar (and, for reference, other sweeteners, like honey and maple syrup, have similar calorie counts to traditional granulated sugar) .
Here are the nutritional statistics of stevia (for a sachet of 1 g):
Clearly, stevia and sugar are very different, not least because stevia adds nothing to your daily calorie total. Other sugar substitutes (aspartame, saccharin, sucralose) are also almost completely calorie-free.
Is stevia effective in improving your health?
You’ll hear about many health benefits associated with stevia, but it’s important to know that research on this extract is still new.
Many people talk about the favorable effect of stevia on blood sugar levels, which makes it ideal for people with type 2 diabetes and those who want to lose weight, or use it to indicate that it is better than other non-nutritive sweeteners. But randomized trials on stevia’s potential for weight loss and diabetes management are largely mixed. Some trials show lower blood sugar responses after consuming stevia, while others report no change.
When it comes to other health markers, like blood pressure, the results are also often mixed. Two trials reported no change, while another reported a decrease in blood pressure after consuming stevia compared to placebo. Overall, consider stevia as a possible sweetener, but don’t expect it to make a noticeable difference to your health.
Is stevia good for weight loss or weight maintenance?
It is not yet known whether stevia can help you lose weight. In theory, it should if you consume a calorie-free sugar instead of traditional sugar. But the human body is complex, and research has yet to prove that calorie-free sweeteners, including stevia, can make you lose weight. As with other calorie-free sweeteners, you may eat more thinking you’ve “saved” calories, or these sweeteners may have a unique effect on your appetite and cause you to eat more.
In one study, participants drank a beverage sweetened with aspartame, sucrose (sugar), or stevia, then ate lunch an hour later. People who drank the no-calorie drink (regardless of type) ate more at lunch than those who drank the sugary (sugar) drink.
What does that mean ? Energy “saved” by replacing sucrose with NNS [édulcorants non nutritifs] was fully compensated at subsequent meals; therefore, no differences in total daily energy intake were found between treatments,” the authors wrote. That said, previous research has shown that when people consumed a drink made with stevia or aspartame before a meal, they did not end up eating more than those who took a drink made with sucrose (sugar).
Another review published in 2017 looked at three randomized controlled trials involving stevia. “None of them described a difference in body weight change between the intervention group and the control group,” the authors noted.
Bottom Line: The research is mixed. Including stevia or other calorie-free sweeteners as part of a healthy diet may be your best bet if you’re looking to lose weight.
Is stevia suitable for people with diabetes?
Non-nutritive sweeteners may play a role in your diet if you have diabetes. When used as a sugar replacement, they can potentially help control glucose. But it was noted that research has not shown that these types of sweeteners actually help people reduce their calorie or carb intake in a real world setting.
Also, you may have heard the buzz that stevia is actually helpful for blood sugar control. Early research on mice published in 2017 shows that stevia stimulates a specific protein channel that helps the pancreas release the right dose of insulin. But jumping to the conclusion that stevia is a way to treat diabetes is not yet appropriate.
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How to use stevia to sweeten your dishes?
Looking to cook or bake with stevia? Add it as a sweetener in coffee or tea? First, remember that stevia can be up to 350 times sweeter than table sugar. The conversion varies depending on whether you are using a sachet or liquid drops; 1 teaspoon of sugar is equal to half a packet of stevia or five drops of liquid stevia. For larger recipes (like baking), ½ cup of sugar is equivalent to 12 packets of stevia or 1 teaspoon of liquid stevia. But if you regularly bake with stevia, consider buying a stevia-sugar blend designed for baking (it will say so on the package), which allows you to replace sugar with stevia at a ratio of 1 :1, making the cooking process easier.
If you’re unfamiliar with stevia, you can try it in coffee or tea first, which can help you reduce your intake of added sugar throughout the day. In hot drinks, stevia dissolves well. Add part of a packet of stevia, stir, taste and keep adding until you reach your desired level of sweetness.
When it comes to cooking and baking, you can substitute most or some of the added sugar with stevia and its respective blends, as it remains stable when heated. Just remember to always read the label of the product you are using to get the right conversion. It is also recommended to keep ¼ cup of granulated sugar in the recipe so that the food caramelizes or browns nicely. Include it in pancakes, cookies, muffins, pies, frozen desserts, salad dressings and sauces.