Stevia is native to the highland regions of northern Paraguay and southern Brazil and is now cultivated and grown all over the world. Before the production of sugar cane, stevia was grown for use as a sweetener in Spain and Portugal.
The herb has a number of benefits for people who want or need to limit their sugar intake. The main benefit of stevia, of course, is that it provides the sweetness of sucrose (table sugar) without the calories. However, unlike sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin, stevia is a natural substance.
Further, it does not cause spikes in blood sugar, so people with diabetes and hypoglycemia can use it without having to worry about blood sugar swings. In addition, stevia is a stable substance that will not break down at high temperatures like aspartame and saccharin, so it can be used in many recipes. Still, the chemical composition of stevia is quite different from sucrose, so it will not caramelize and cannot be used easily in baked goods like cookies and fudge.
Another property of stevia is that it does not feed yeast. This is a benefit for people with candida (yeast) overgrowth who need to avoid sugar, though it also means that breads made with stevia instead of sucrose will not rise as high when baked.
Stevia is gaining attention as a natural sweetener and flavor enhancer. It has been around for more than fifty years, but getting it to market for the general public has been a challenge, due mostly to the fact that it is expensive to produce. Food manufacturers are reluctant to use stevia in their products because of the high cost. However, many health food stores sell stevia in liquid and powdered form. It is also available as fresh, dried or ground leaves. Fresh or dried stevia leaves can be used to brew herbal tea or to make liquid extracts.
Liquid stevia is syrup made from dried stevia leaves. Its level of sweetness depends on the producer, with dark extracts generally considered to be the best form for use as a sweetener. There are also clear liquid extracts that are dissolved in water, alcohol or glycerin. Powdered stevia is made by extracting glycosides, the part of the stevia that gives it its sweetness, from the rest of the plant.
Powdered extracts that are 80 to 95% sweet glycosides are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. There are also powdered extracts of stevia that are comprised of 40 to 50% sweet glycosides; these are not as sweet as the more concentrated powders, but are still many times sweeter than sucrose.
In fact, because stevia is so sweet, it is common to create powdered blends by combining fillers like lactose or maltodextrin with ground stevia, since highly concentrated extracts may actually be too sweet for everyday use.
Is Stevia Dangerous? Are There Issues With Stevia Safety?
Though there are many positives associated with stevia, there have been some concerns about its safety. These include a possible link to cancer, as well as reproductive problems and the disruption of carbohydrate metabolism.
For example, a study conducted with male rats showed that those fed high amounts of stevia had lower sperm count. Another study suggested that female hamsters fed a derivative of stevia had fewer and smaller offspring. Further, lab tests have shown that stevia can turn into a compound that may cause mutations in DNA. The concern with DNA mutations is that they may lead to cancer.
Stevia may also alter the body’s ability to use carbohydrates for energy.
Despite the negative results of some studies, there appears to be no conclusive evidence that stevia is unsafe. In fact, it has been consumed in Japan for nearly 30 years with no adverse effects noted.
In the U.S., however, the FDA considers specific, purified stevia-based sweeteners, such as Truvia and PureVia to be GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) for use in foods. Whole-leaf or crude preparations, however, have yet to receive the FDA’s blessing (as of this writing).