Many food products these days contain so much sugar it’s alarming. No doubt you’ve seen at least one of the many write-ups and news reports detailing just how many spoonfuls of sugar is in your favorite soda and cup of coffee. Because of all the fear about the damage sugar is doing to our bodies, sugar substitutes became more popular than ever.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the following facts:
- Americans have been adding more sugar into their diet yearly from 1970 until 2000.
- After dropping sugar, Americans started using sugar-like extracts instead.
- The value of the sugar substitute market is estimated to be worth $10.5 billion in 2012.
- Since 2000, 18% of US adults use low-calorie or no-calorie sweeteners.
- In 2012, the number of US adults using sugar substitutes rose to 24%.
- 12% of American children use sugar substitutes.
Among the many sugar substitutes, one stands out: stevia.
But what is stevia? And is it really any better than plain old sugar?
Before you start using stevia as a substitute, here are a few things you need to know about it.
1. Stevia is a plant.
Unlike many sugar substitutes, stevia is unique because it’s a plant derivative. The stevia plant is of the Asteraceae family. It’s a close relative to daisies and ragweed. There are also stevia species native to New Mexico, Arizona and Texas called “candyleaf”.
In Paraguay and Brazil, they grow the prized stevia species, Stevia rebaudiana. In those countries, they have been using stevia leaves to sweeten food for hundreds of years. It’s even used in traditional medicine as treatment for burns, colic and stomach problems. Some people use it as contraceptive as well.
2. Stevia has no calories.
Interestingly, stevia isn’t valued for what it can do. Rather, it’s prized for what it doesn’t. Stevia has no calories. Even so, it’s still 200 times sweeter than sugar in the same concentration.
3. Studies about stevia’s health benefits are inconclusive.
There are studies alluding to stevia’s possible health benefits. Research has been made at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to find out if stevia can be used in treating hypertension. The Natural Standard Research Collaboration, who participated in the study, gave it a grade “B” for efficacy in lowering blood pressure. However, the study isn’t definitive and the experts agree more research is needed before stevia’s health benefits can really be determined.
4. Stevia can make you overeat.
A sugar substitute without any calories may sound perfect to dieters. But don’t stock up on stevia just yet. A study found out that low-calorie and no-calorie artificial sweeteners may not really lead to weight loss. In fact, it may just do the opposite.
It’s theorized that the mismatch in perceived sweetness and the expected calories from sugar can make one overeat. Or at least that’s what the rats did in a 2004 study. The author of the study (printed in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders) also fears that people using artificial sweeteners may suffer health problems associated with excess sugar. This may include the metabolic syndrome which is a precursor to diabetes.
5. The US FDA is concerned about how safe stevia is.
The question of whether stevia is safe to consume in large quantities or not has been raised a lot. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), stevia leaves and “crude stevia extracts” have not been approved for use as a food additive. In fact, they have raised concerns about how stevia may adversely impact the control of blood sugar. They are also worried about how it may affect reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems.
6. Stevia may not be suitable for people taking medication.
The stevia plant causes low blood pressure. People taking blood pressure medication, insulin or diabetes drugs by mouth are therefore advised to exercise caution in using stevia as a sugar substitute.
Stevia may also interact with anti-inflammatory drugs, antifungals, anti-cancer medicine, antimicrobials, antivirals, appetite suppressants, and calcium channel blockers.
Sugar substitutes certainly sound better when faced with the many dangers of sugar to our general health and well-being. But before deciding on any one of them, it helps to know if they are actually beneficial or will just do more harm than good.