If you’re trying to eat healthier or to lose weight, you’ve probably checked your sugar intake. Many people turn to sugar substitutes such as Sweet’N Low, Equal, and Splenda. They’re even found in foods such as juices, soda, cereals, and health bars.
Recently, however, consumers concerned with artificial sweeteners such as saccharin (Sweet N’ Low) and aspartame (Equal) have turned to a natural sweetener, Stevia. It’s sold as a dietary supplement and is considered healthier than sugar. However, the U.S. Food & Drugs Administration (FDA) keeps putting a spotlight on the possible dangers of stevia, which leaves many consumers wondering if it is safe.
What Is Stevia?
This calorie-free sweetener is said to be 300 times as sweet as sugar. It comes from a herb in the chrysanthemum family called stevia rebaudiana. It’s a native shrub of Paraguay, but also grows in Argentina and Brazil and has been used for over 1500 years by South American Indians.
The leaves have been used to sweeten foods and teas for centuries with little evidence of danger. Unlike sugar it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, making it a much healthier choice.
According to the Journal of Phytomedicine stevia helps control blood glucose and promotes insulin creation, and an extract, stevioside, may be used as a type 2 diabetes medication. Another study in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology showed that this herbal sweetener lowers blood pressure.
How Safe Is It?
Unfortunately, this natural sweetener has faced some backlash from the (FDA). They frequently refuse requests to add stevia to pre-packaged foods based on a few studies citing possible side effects. In one study, high doses of stevia reduced sperm production in rats, and a few other obscure studies linked the herb to cancer.
However, none of these claims have been proven, and this sugar alternative has been used safely around the world for hundreds of years. Yet, other man-made sugar substitutes such as saccharin and aspartame are approved for use, while many people question their long-term effects.
Some critics of the FDA suggest that the backlash might be due to pressure from the sugar industry. However, recently approved as an additive is Rebiana, a sweetener made from a compound in stevia called steviol.
How To Use It
Stevia is most commonly available in powder form. However, you can also purchase the liquid leaf extract, powdered leaf, tablets or capsules. The powder is very, very sweet — one teaspoon is equivalent to about one cup of sugar. For best results, use less than you think you’ll need and dissolve it in water first. The powdered leaf is about 30 times as sweet as sugar and contains more healthier compounds than the powder does, so it may be preferable for some people.