Stevia: Sweet or not for your health?

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We’ve all heard that sugar has taken to task for a myriad of health problems, but that sweet tooth remains.

Stevia, derived from a green plant originally grown in South America, is calorie free sweetener and can be used in a variety of ways. But is it a guilt free option for some sweet satisfaction?

The answer is, generally yes. Of course, the best option is to tame that sweet tooth and enjoy a variety of whole foods. It ok to include some that contain natural sugars, like fruit, the ideal dessert. But if you have a weight loss goal, go easy on fruit.

Using any sweetener to excess, including non-caloric ones like stevia, is not ideal. Our body may get confused as it expects some fructose or glucose after a sweet taste. And you won’t cure sugar cravings if you use high amounts of stevia, even though it has no calories.

Basic facts: Stevia has been used for centuries in some South American cultures as a sweetener and medicine. Stevia contains two substances—stevioside and rebaudioside—which make it very sweet. It can be up to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar.

If the leaves of the plant are minimally processed, it retains both substances, but has a bitter, almost licorice-like aftertaste. You can buy green leaf stevia, but most people prefer stevia extracts, which are refined with either an alcohol base or glycerin to minimize the bitterness. Stevia glycerite seems to have the least aftertaste. Good brands include Now and SweetLeaf, which also contains a vegetable fiber called inulin. You can get stevia in liquid or powered form.

Watch out for Truvia and PureVia. Truvia is made from a sugar alcohol erithrytol and a small amount of stevia, while PureVia has dextrose sugar in addition to stevia. The FDA says they can’t be advertised as “natural” sweeteners.

With the recent focus on minimizing sugar in our diets, lots of research is going on to assess for potential benefits of stevia. A study review by Dr Kelly Petrucci showed that:

1. It may lower the risk of breast cancer.

2. It appears to lower blood glucose levels in Type 2 diabetics.

3. It can increase insulin sensitivity in rats.

4. It can reduce blood pressure in people with mild hypertension.

5. It has anti-inflammatory effects.

6. It protects against atherosclerosis in mice.

7. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties.

8. It has antioxidant properties.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect world and stevia has potential downsides as well. Some people are sensitive to stevia. It has been implicated to cause nasal allergies, eczema and even anaphylaxis. If you are allergic to ragweed or sunflower seeds, you are at higher risk. Signs of a serious allergic reaction include swelling and itching of the lips, mouth, tongue and throat, hives, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and a tingling sensation in the mouth and throat. Seek medical attention and an Epi-Pen immediately if these symptoms occur.

One other potential problem: Using large amounts of stevia may have some negative effects on your gut bacteria. For instance, one recent study found that it inhibited the growth of certain beneficial bacteria.

Overall, the scales seem to tip in favor of stevia as a healthy choice to sweeten up your life on an occasional basis. As more research comes along, it will be interesting to see if stevia is incorporated in potential treatments or recommended for regular use in healthy people.

~Dr. Sue

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