Often, a food’s nutritional value is questioned or confused because of modern processing methods. Depending on your currant verdict of stevia, this may precisely be the case. Like the other sweeteners we’ve discussed, to determine if stevia holds a place in our pantry, we should understand the history and research of stevia, how our body breaks it down, and how it is processed in this modern chemical age.
Stevia is derived from the plant, Stevia rebaudiana. The plant was used extensively by the South American Gaurani Indians for more than 1500 years for medicinal purposes as well as a sweet leaf in beverages. Because of stevia’s longevity of beneficial effects spanning multiple generations, we can be more confident with its use. However, the form of stevia that we’ve seen growing in popularity over the last decade, is not the same whole form used by the Gaurani Indians. Today, stevia may be esteemed as healthy because it comes from a plant, but so does corn syrup and white sugar. So, we need to probe and determine if the processing of stevia adulterates the health of the leaf. Let’s take a closer look at the make up of this sweetener.
The stevia leaf contains chemical compounds called steviol glycosides which make it sweet. In its natural form, the stevia leaf is about 40 times sweeter than sugar. Commercial stevia is produced by isolating one or two of these glycosides, and depending on which one is used, may result with a bitter aftertaste from some brands.When the glycosides are isolated, the product is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar.
There is some controversy over how these glycosides interact in our body, but currant studies have proved only benefits; including anti-bacterial, antidiabetic, anti-cancer, and antioxidant properties. But don’t forget to read the label and know your source. An organic, pure stevia extract simply contains the original isolates which will result in the benefits listed above. However, many stevia products include one of the following ingredients: sugar, dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin, or agave. These are all names for chemical laden sugar.
Surprisingly, and unlike most sweeteners, stevia does not raise our blood sugar levels. It has no caloric value, so is not categorized as a sugar-- note, steviol glycosides do not contain the “ose” suffix as all sugars do. It also has a glycemic load of 0. Because of this, stevia can be very healing for diabetics and those with other blood sugar handling issues. However, one concern is that this ultra sweet taste can potentially confuse the insulin response in some individuals. This is a phenomenon which we’ll discuss in more depth when we explore the topic of artificial sweeteners.
Now that you have the facts, what is the verdict? Strive for purity and independency! What do I mean by this? Ideally, we return to stevia in its whole form by using the leaves as the Gaurani Indians did. We can crush them into powder, boil them like tea to make a sweet syrup, or produce a liquid extract much like vanilla extract. This is on my bucket list for the fall as I’ve planted stevia in my herb garden this year. Second best, and still Thriving Health approved, is the use of pure organic stevia. Check the ingredients for those added processed sugars and steer clear. Last of all, I mentioned independency. Because stevia is so much sweeter, but holds no caloric value, it is easy to overdue and depend upon it. Always challenge your palate to enjoy the raw flavors in food; then, as desired, use stevia as a sweet treat!
 Misra, H.; Soni, M.; Silawat, N.; Mehta, D.; Mehta, B. K.; Jain, D. C. (April 2011). "Antidiabetic activity of medium-polar extract from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana Bert. (Bertoni) on alloxan-induced diabetic rats". J Pharm Bioallied Sci. 3 (2): 242–8.
If you have questions or comments for Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Maria Adam, contact her at thrivinghealthNY.com.