Stevia Health Benefits


I was in Kensington Market in Toronto over the weekend and came across a fruit market that was selling hundreds of edible plants – every different sort of herb, fruit and vegetable plant you can imagine. There were at six different types of thyme, most of which I had never heard of.

And one plant I was surprised to see was the stevia plant. There was a time when you couldn’t find these plants north of Mexico unless someone had smuggled it in, but now they’re sold here on the street. The plant has a natural sweetness, yet provides negligible calories. But, unlike artificial sweeteners, it is safe, has no known side effects and is actually beneficial.

The plant and its extracts were originally banned in Canada, but were later allowed to be sold as a supplement even though the primary use is as a sweetener. Last year Health Canada updated the rules on stevia allowing it to be added to natural health products as a non-medicinal additive opening the doors for food and beverage makers to use it in their products. But even now you’ll usually find stevia in the supplement section of a health food store, not with the other sweeteners in the grocery section.

The stevia plant is native to South America where it has been used by the native populations for centuries. For the last 20 years, stevia extracts have been used in Brazil and Japan as commercialized sweeteners, widely promoted as appropriate for diabetics. This is where the sweetener really shines – adding a sweetness without causing any of the negative effects of sugar or artificial sweeteners. I use it myself every morning in my smoothie, avoiding the necessity of using other sweeteners or even juice, which can still be high in sugar.

But aside from being a safe, zero-calorie sweetener, stevia may also be beneficial to health. The indigenous tribes in South America used it as a digestive aid and also applied it topically for wound healing.

The natural plant glycoside in stevia called Stevioside has been shown to lower blood pressure in humans when used long term; like over the course of one or two years. In studies, stevia has been shown to decrease blood sugar levels in human volunteers although these studies have yet to be repeated on diabetics.

Other studies have suggested that stevia helps regulate the pancreas, acting directly on the insulin producing cells, which could be the mechanism for its blood glucose-lowering effect. This blood-sugar stabilizing effect makes it safe for use as a dietary supplement for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia, and candidiasis.

Stevia has even been found to retard plaque formation on teeth and suppress bacterial growth in the mouth according to the Hiroshima University School of Dentistry and the Purdue University Dental Research team. That’s a far cry better than what sugar does to teeth.

But overall, stevia is just a good sweetener to use as a safe alternative to sugar. It’s several times sweeter than sugar, so you only need to use a little bit. It comes in several different forms, all of them useful in different applications. The “whole leaf” powder, which is made from dehydrated ground stevia leaves, is the closest to whole food stevia you can get without actually growing the plant yourself. I’ve experimented with this form, but found it difficult to incorporate into things like beverages. Although I haven’t tried it myself, it might be good in a smoothie, since it will get well incorporated by the rigorous blending.

Another form of stevia is the white powder that looks much like other sweeteners. It even comes in little packets like other sweeteners. This is a powdered extract of the plant that is useful in most applications. But the type that I tend to use is the liquid extract. It comes in a small bottle with a dropper for easy measurement. It has the consistency of maple syrup (and is about as sticky), only it’s clear. I put a dropper full in my morning smoothie and it makes it just the right sweetness. Check for it at health food stores.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale

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