Latin: Stevia rebaudiana
WHAT IT DOES: Stevia leaf is sweet in taste and neutral in action. It sweetens without adding calories and contains antioxidants that reduce inflammation.
RATING: yellow, due to limitations in use
SAFETY ISSUES: None known. Do not use in excess.
• Drops or powder: add to food and drink as a sweetener, to taste
Stevia leaf is a natural sweetener that comes from the rainforests in Paraguay and Brazil. Per weight gram, the purified white dried leaf extract of stevia is up to several hundred times sweeter than sugar–almost as sweet as saccharine. Unlike white sugar, stevia leaf is calorie-free and non-disruptive to blood sugar levels. So far, there have been no recorded side effects from stevia consumption. It has passed strict Japanese health trials, and is used in Japan to sweeten diet sodas. Several drops take the place of teaspoons of sugar. Although stevia in its sweetening dosage does not have strong medicinal effects, it is an important tool in helping patients manage their sugar intake.
Many people working to improve their health discover that it is difficult to stay away from excess sugar in foods and drinks. For example, it is difficult to find drinks other than spring water that are beneficial to your health and low in sugar among the typical offerings of sodas, milk products, alcohol, sugar drinks, and various hybrids containing things you can’t pronounce. Commercial sugared sodas are loaded with chemical additives like caffeine and phosphoric acid. They have little nutritional value and may cause a variety of health problems, including calcium loss in children. The few natural choices, such as juices, contain natural sugars in amounts too high for persons with diseases such as diabetes or intestinal infections. As well, there are problems associated with some over-the-counter non-nutritive sweeteners.
Stevia really stands out in that it has numerous health benefits. Animal studies show antixoidant properties, improvements in insulin sensitivity, antiinflammatory properties and mild blood pressure lowerinf effects.
For a natural, low-calorie soda, add some stevia leaf and lemon, lime, black cherry or other flavoring to carbonated mineral water. Spring water-based sparkling waters such as Perrier (available in most supermarkets), offer the benefit of additional healthy minerals. To make a low-calorie fruit drink, use about 10-20 percent pure juice and the rest water, along with several drops of stevia. A glass of this kind of beverage one hour before meals can actually assist in weight reduction by decreasing hunger. For those people who aren’t on a no-sugar diet, about 20% fruit juice of any kind mixed with stevia works well. You should experiment to find the flavors you like the most.
Though safety concerns about saccharin seem to be overblown (Elcock and Morgan, 1993, Chappel, 1992), there are still many concerns associated with aspartame. There is actually a large consumer movement behind these questions—you can follow this ongoing controversy on the Internet. For these reasons, stevia leaf is a good addition to our natural pharmacy. It is not the only alternative, however. Sugar alcohols such as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol are natural and low in calories and serve similar purposes. I favor mixing these together or using small amounts of different ones at different times, making sure to avoid the overuse that can perpetuate a “sweet tooth.”
• In animal models, stevia exhibits a mild diuretic effect at high doses (Melis, 1996; Melis, 1995).
• When given to fasting rats, it causes an increase in stored sugars (glycogen) in the liver. This effect has not been shown in humans, but the results offer promising implications for hypoglycemics and Type I diabetics, both of whom have problems with storage of glycogen. Stevia may have a beneficial effect beyond replacing sugar (Hubler et al., 1994).
• In another study of human subjects in good health, water extracts of stevia leaf caused a decrease in blood sugars and an increase in glucose tolerance (Curi et al., 1986).
• Stevia has shown very little, if any, significant toxicity in both human and animal studies. In an experiment with cultured human lymphocytes, there was no evidence of mutagenic activity until dosage reached very high levels (Suttajit et al., 1993).
• Studies have also confirmed that stevia does not possess any cancer-causing potential in animals (Das et al., 1992), and has no effect on growth or reproduction in hamsters (Yodyingyuad and Bunyawong, 1991).