Top 10 Health Benefits of Stevia
The stevia plant has been used by the native peoples of Brazil and Paraguay as a food and medicine for over 1,000 years. The sweetest and most favored species is Stevia rebaudiana, named after Petrus Jacobus Stevus, a Spanish botanist, and Ovidio Rebaudi, a chemist from Paraguay.
The sweetness of the stevia plant comes from various steviosides that can be around 300 times sweeter than sugar, but which do not add calories or affect blood glucose levels. Naturally, this makes the plant very useful as a sweet alternative to sugar. And while many countries around the world have approved stevia as a food, the United States has lagged behind. The FDA initially banned all forms of stevia in foods, while approving various artificial sweeteners like aspartame and Sucralose. However, they have gradually begun to allow various forms of stevia as supplements and as sweeteners.
Currently, stevia can be purchased as a leaf powder, as a powdered extract, or as a liquid extract. The leaf powder is simply the dried and powdered plant. It is the least processed form and therefore the most natural. In the US, this form is not considered a food, for legal purposes. However, it can still be purchased as a supplement. In this pure form, stevia can have a somewhat bitter aftertaste.
The liquid and powdered extracts typically lack the bitter aftertaste. However, they are more processed. If purchasing stevia extracts, be sure to check the ingredient labels for other ingredients. Stevia is often altered or blended with other sweeteners, such as erythritol. And some so-called stevia sweeteners may have little actual stevia in them. Alternately, you can grow your own stevia and use it as you see fit. Details are presented later in the article.
Botanical Name: Stevia rebaudiana
Other Common Names: Sweetleaf, candy leaf, sugar leaf
Parts Used: Leaves
Actions: Anticancer, antidiabetic, antihypertensive, antimicrobial, diuretic, hepatoprotective
Taste: Sweet, bitter (aftertaste)
Plant Uses: While stevia is typically used as a sweetener, it also has antimicrobial and liver-protecting properties. As a consequence of replacing sugar with stevia, people may also experience the many benefits of decreasing their sugar intake.
Plant Preparations: The leaf can be used fresh or dried. Powder liquid extracts are also popular. Powders are more popular in baking, while liquids are more popular in drinks.
Toxicities/Warnings: No major concerns. Theoretical possibility of allergic reaction for people with ragweed allergy (not documented).
- Guilt-free Sweetener: Stevia is a healthy, natural sweetener. It allows you to get the sweet tastes you crave without the calories of sugar or the health concerns associated with artificial sweeteners.
- Anticancer: Stevia has demonstrated anticancer properties, both in discouraging its formation and in helping the body to terminate these cells.
- Blood Sugar Management: Stevia consumption has been shown to help diabetics control blood glucose and insulin levels.
- Weight Loss: By replacing sugar, stevia helps to support a healthy weight.
- Improve Cholesterol Levels: Consuming stevia regularly has been shown to have positive effects on cholesterol, lowering triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, while raising HDL levels.
- Liver Protection: Stevia has antioxidant and immunomodulatory properties that help protect the liver from damaging chemicals.
- Antimicrobial: Stevia has antibacterial properties and shows promise as a future treatment for Lyme disease.
- Regulate Blood Pressure: Consuming stevia helps to relax the blood vessels and remove excess sodium from the body, lowering high blood pressure.
- Healthy Skin: Use stevia topically for eczema and irritated skin.
- Oral Health: Stevia helps to discourage the growth of bacteria in the mouth.
While stevia is primarily used as a natural alternative to sugar, it also has a number of health benefits. Many of these are likely to stem from the fact that as one increases intake of stevia, one also decreases the intake of processed sugars. However, stevia has medicinal properties all its own.
Stevia has been linked to a reduction in breast cancer and an increase in cancer cell death. It has the ability to inhibit certain metabolic processes that are associated with cancer growth. As a related benefit, a decrease in sugar consumption is associated with a lower rate of cancer, in general.
Stevia helps people achieve a healthy weight by reducing the total amount of sugar consumed. It also shows positive effects on cholesterol profiles, decreasing triglycerides and LDL, while raising HDL cholesterol. Studies have also that stevia helps to reduce blood sugar levels and balance insulin. Stevia also shows liver protecting properties.
Both short-term and long-term studies have shown that stevia helps to lower high blood pressure. It does this by relaxing blood vessels. It also increases urination, helping the body to expel excess sodium.
Stevia also has some interesting antibacterial properties. Stevia can be applied topically to help with some forms of skin irritation and eczema, especially where these are related to bacterial infection. Consuming it orally can help to reduce the numbers of cavity forming bacteria in the mouth. This may be due partly to stevia’s antibacterial properties and partly to a reduced amount of residual sugar sticking to the teeth. Fortunately, stevia’s antimicrobial properties do not appear to significantly effect the balance of probiotic bacteria living in the digestive tract.
Another exciting property of stevia is that it is more effective at killing Lyme disease bacteria than current antibiotics. A study found that stevia extract (specifically rebaudioside A) killed Lyme disease bacteria completely after 7 days, whereas standard antibiotics appeared to kill the disease only to have it come back in a more resistant form. The study found that liquid extract was more effective than powdered extract. Raw plant material was not tested.
While this is exciting news, there are some limitations yet to be evaluated and overcome. The study was conducted in a test tube, rather than in the human body. When ingested, our gut microbes convert rebaudioside A into steviol. Steviol might have similar antibacterial properties to rebaudioside A, but this has yet to be established. And while some rebaudioside A and steviol are absorbed into our bodies, the quantities are not great. It is not clear how much stevia one would have to consume to effectively combat Lyme disease in the human body, if this is even possible. Hopefully, future research will expand our knowledge on this topic.
People typically consume stevia for its sweetness, rather than for its nutritional content. Nevertheless, stevia is a good source of several micronutrients, such as chromium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and selenium. It’s also high in potassium and vitamin A. Keep in mind that this applies to the plant, not necessarily to a liquid or powdered extract. Commercial stevia extracts isolate and concentrate the sweet-tasting rebaudioside A, and leave most of the other components behind.
Preparation and Usage
The FDA lists the ADI (acceptable daily intake) of steviosides as 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The ADI for rebaudiosides is given as 4 milligrams per kilogram body weight. Natural products will vary in their quantity of steviosides and rebaudiosides, but an FDA-approved stevia extract will be standardized so that you could consume 12 milligrams of the extract for every kilogram of your body weight.
- 100 pounds = 3-1/2 teaspoons powdered extract or 14 drops liquid extract
- 150 pounds = 5-1/2 teaspoons powdered extract or 22 drops liquid extract
- 200 pounds = 7-1/2 teaspoons powdered extract or 30 drops liquid extract
- 250 pounds = 9 teaspoons powdered extract or 36 drops liquid extract
For reference, a standard sweetener packet is around 1 teaspoon.
Stevia is most commonly used as a sweetener. The “dosing” would therefore depend on how sweet you like your food and drink. Powdered extracts are most commonly used in baking applications, while liquid extracts are most commonly used in liquids. If using the raw powdered leaf in a drink, you may want to put it in a teabag and allow it to steep for several minutes.
- 1 teaspoon of sugar = 1/8 teaspoon powdered stevia or 5 drops of liquid extract
- 1 tablespoon of sugar = 1/3 teaspoon powdered stevia or 15 drops of liquid extract
- 1 cup of sugar = 2 tablespoons of powdered stevia or 2 teaspoons of liquid extract
While stevia is most commonly used as a sweetener, its antimicrobial properties can also be used topically to aid in treating skin infections.33) Crush fresh leaves, or add a small amount of water to powder to make a paste. Apply this to a wound and hold it in place with a bandage or wrap.
It should come as no surprise that making your own stevia powder is a fairly direct process. Simply pick and dry the leaves of the plant. Then place them in a coffee grinder or blender and pulse them into powder. You could also use a mortar and pestle if you want to feel like an old-time apothecary.
You can make your own super-sweet stevia extract with surprising ease. It’s quite similar to how you would make a tincture, but with a couple of important differences. Take a handful of stevia leaves and chop them roughly. Place these in a mason jar and pour vodka over them until they are covered.
Shake the jar up and place it in a dark place for 48 hours. If you were making a medicinal tincture, you would let the plant material soak for a much longer time. However, the sweet-tasting rebaudiosides seems to diffuse into the alcohol faster than the more bitter steviosides. This means that a longer duration will result in a bitter product.
Next, strain out the leaves. After this, you have two choices. You can leave the alcohol content as it is and safely store the extract for several years. Or you can reduce the alcohol content by placing it in a pot and heating it on low for around 20 minutes. This evaporates most of the alcohol, resulting in a better-tasting product. Do not bring the liquid to a boil. Excess heat reduces the sweetness. The finished extract can be stored in the refrigerator for a few months.
Remember that this extract is not standardized and the sweetness may not match the conversion tables above.
Precautions and Contraindications
Few substances could claim to generate such consistently positive results in safety studies as stevia. It is not carcinogenic or mutagenic; it doesn’t alter the balance of your gut microbes; and its potential side-effects are few and rare. Further, these side effects can often be the result of additives or other sweeteners, such as erythritol, being added to a stevia-based product.
Intakes significantly higher than the FDA’s acceptable daily intake do not appear to have any negative effect on fertility, birth rates, or the health of the baby. However, due to its diuretic nature, stevia might be contraindicated when taking diuretic medications. It is also theoretically possible that those with ragweed allergies could have a reaction to stevia, though this has not been reported.
The ADI (acceptable daily intake) numbers determined by the FDA are created using a safety factor of 100. This means that stevia was tested at 100 times the ADI level without yielding problematic results. To reach this level, a 200 pound man would have to consume 750 teaspoons of powdered stevia extract. That’s the sweetness equivalent of around 125 cups of sugar in a single day.
Stevia is not a showy plant, and can be easily passed by if you’re not looking for it. It grows to around 2-3 feet (0.5-1 meter) and has weak stems. The leaves are opposite and oblong with a prominent midrib, and are about an inch long. The flowers are small, white, tubular, and have no distinct fragrance.
With around 240 species in the stevia genus, Stevia rebaudiana has several related look-alikes. Many are edible, but you may want to buy one from a plant nursery or talk to a local expert to ensure that you have the correct species.
Where It Grows and Where to Find It
Stevia is native to areas in northern South America, such as Brazil and Paraguay. It has been successfully cultivated commercially in Central America, China, and other locations. Stevia prefers a humid environment and moist soil, but not standing water. In extremely hot areas, it prefers afternoon shade, but otherwise enjoys full sun.
If you don’t happen to live where stevia grows naturally, fear not. Stevia can also be found at many plant nurseries. If you happen to have a friend with a stevia plant, you can reliably propagate your own from a root or stem cuttings. You could also order seeds from a catalog or website, but this is the least reliable method of propagation.
Stevia grows in zones 9-11, but can survive outdoors in zone 8, with some protection. Stevia can be grown as an annual in colder locations. It will also grow happily in a container and can be brought inside during cold weather.
How and When to Harvest
Leaves can be harvested at any time. However, some say that leaves harvested in the fall are sweeter. Stevia is evergreen and can be harvested in the colder months, but you should take care to avoid over-harvesting when the plant is not actively growing and replacing leaves.
While you can pluck individual leaves, you’ll save time and probably cause less stress to the plant by simply cutting off a piece of stem. The leaves can be rinsed, dried, and then removed when you’re ready to use or process them.
Stevia is a sweet solution for those looking to limit their sugar intake and increase their health. Kick the sugar habit and ditch those dangerous artificial sweeteners. You’ll be glad you did.
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