Most of us are trying to limit the amount of sugar in our diets these days, and going completely refined sugar-free is becoming more popular. Natural sweeteners and sugar alternatives such as stevia, coconut palm sugar and yacon syrup are becoming more widely available and make cutting out sugar much easier, as you don’t have to go without your favourite sweet foods.
The health benefits of reducing or avoiding sugar are many. Sugar is associated with a host of health problems, including obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. It is also thought to accelerate the ageing process and contribute to skin ageing, and we all know its role in weight gain. As we heard last week, sugar is also an energy zapper, so there are plenty of good reasons if you haven’t already made the decision to reduce your sugar intake.
Beauty & Go drinks do not contain any added sugar at all, only natural sugars from fruits, so they are suitable for anyone going sugar-free. Stevia, a natural, calorie-free sweetener, adds sweetness and allows us to reduce the levels of natural fruit sugars and calories in each drink.
This week I am therefore going to tell you all about stevia, what is it and why we use it.
What is Stevia?
Stevia comes from the Stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana), a wild herb in the chrysanthemum family, native to South America. It has been used traditionally for more than 1500 years by the people of Brazil and Paraguay to sweeten tea and foods and to treat minor aliments such as burns and stomach upsets. It has also been popular in Japan since the 1970s, where it now accounts for 40% of the total sweeteners market.
Stevia is extracted in a process that involves steeping the dried leaves of the plant in hot water, like you would make tea, and then separating or purifying the sweet compounds, which are known as steviol glycosides. Because this is a gentle and natural extraction process, the steviol glycosides remain intact and chemically unchanged throughout the whole process.
Stevia is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, so much smaller quantities are needed to sweeten foods. The intense sweetness comes from the steviol glycosides, which are not absorbed by the body, they simply pass through, which is why stevia contains no calories!
It has a glycaemic index score of zero, meaning that it does not affect blood sugar levels, which as we discussed last week has advantages for regulating energy levels, mood and appetite. It is also great for diabetics who need to control their blood sugar levels.
Evidence from research studies has also found that stevioside, one of the sweet compounds in stevia, appears to help lower blood sugar levels, and may even improve insulin sensitivity, which would have further benefits for people with type 2 diabetes. (1-3)
Other studies have found that stevioside, can help lower blood pressure (4-5). Quite large doses were used in these studies however, so consuming normal amounts probably won’t have much of an affect.
Finally, stevia has been found to have anti-inflammatory affects, which has potential advantages in terms of the ageing process and many diseases that involve inflammation.
Stevia is an all-natural herbal product with centuries of safe usage by native Indians in Paraguay – in fact, the Indians traditionally made stevia tea for its healing properties.
Extensive reviews of both human and animal data have tested stevia and proven it to be safe (6). It has no known side effects, unlike many artificial sweeteners and has been safely consumed in other countries around the world, such as Japan in massive quantities for decades.
How can you use Stevia?
You can add stevia to hot drinks and it works well as a sugar substitute for baking. You will need to adjust recipes though, firstly because it is so much sweeter than sugar and secondly because it is much less bulky (i.e. has less volume).
It is available as either a liquid, which is good for adding to drinks and a powder great for baking. Watch out for products that mix stevia with other less healthy sweeteners or even sugar though, and instead go for purest one you can find.
A double-blind placebo-controlled study of the effectiveness and tolerability of oral stevioside in human hypertension. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2000 Sep;50(3):215-20. 6. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 478-80.