The health benefits of stevia include its ability to aid in weight loss, lower blood pressure, reduce blood sugar, protect oral health, build strong bones, prevent certain forms of cancer, and help avoid cavities.
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What is Stevia?
Stevia is widely considered one of the most interesting and beneficial new discoveries when it comes to human health and nutrition. Stevia is actually the name for the more than 240 species of shrubs and small flowering plans in the Asteraceae family, which is the same family as sunflowers. Stevia is known by different names, including sweet leaf or sugar leaf, but the formal scientific name is Stevia rebaudiana. It grows in the tropical portions of North and South America, but it isn’t well-known as a plant. Instead, stevia has received its recent fame as being an artificial sweetener that is more than 40x sweeter than sugar, but does not have the negative side effects on the body that normal sugar does.
The plant has been used for hundreds of years because of its extremely sweet leaves, but it was hardly known around the world. Now, the name stevia is spreading like wildfire because it offers something that millions of diabetics need, a sugar replacement that won’t affect blood sugar levels. As more and more research emerges about this wonderful new option for people on carbohydrate-controlled diets, the number of countries who are approving stevia as a sweetener and a food additive is increasing.
In 2011, the EU gave permission for stevia to be used throughout the 27 nations. Without getting into too much detail, the molecules that taste like sugar in stevia, rebaudiosides, are passed into the digestive tract, where they are used by the bacteria in the colon. In short, these glucose-like molecules are not absorbed into the bloodstream, so they don’t affect blood sugar, but they make the foods they are in taste very sweet! This tricks blood sugar bonus is not the only benefit of stevia, nor are these rebaudiosides the only nutrient this plant (and sweetener) contains.
Nutritional Value of Stevia
Stevia is valued most for its sweet leaves and its ability to replace sugar in a diet, but stevia also contains a wealth of antioxidant compounds, such as flavonoids, triterpenes, tannins, caffeic acid, kaempferol, and quercetin, among others. The stevia plant also contains fiber, protein, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. However, in the sweetener form, these additional elements are nearly negligible. The smaller organic compounds play the real role in the health benefits of stevia.
Health Benefits of Stevia
The most important or widely praised aspect of stevia for human health concerns its ability to regulate blood sugar levels in the body. Opposed to sucrose, which is what normal table sugar consists of, stevia sweetens food in a similar way as sugar, but it contains stevioside, which is a non-carbohydrate glycoside compound. As explained above, when stevioside breaks down, the glucose-containing particles are absorbed by the bacteria in the colon, rather than being absorbed into the bloodstream and affecting glucose levels in the body. This is an ideal replacement for normal sugar for diabetics or people on carbohydrate-controlled diets because they can eat sweet foods without having to worry about diabetic complications.
Stevia is very low in calories and is anywhere from 40-300x sweeter than sugar, depending on the prevalence of certain extracts in the species variety. This means that people can eat foods like cakes, cookies, and candies made with stevia without worrying about gaining a great deal of calories from sugars, so they won’t hurt their chances of successfully losing weight.
Regulated Blood Pressure
As mentioned, stevioside is a type of glycoside, but there are other glycosides in stevia that can actually relax the blood vessels, increase urination, and facilitate the elimination of sodium from the body. This means that less stress is put on the cardiovascular system and there can be a drop in blood pressure, which protects heart health and prevents certain conditions such as atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes.
Stevia has been found to reduce bacterial formation in the mouth, making it a popular additive for toothpastes and mouthwashes. It also prevents cavities and gingivitis, which sucrose certainly doesn’t do!
In a similar antibacterial function, as it plays in the mouth, stevia has been found to be a useful topical application for skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis. It inhibits the spread of bacteria and acts as a steroid in these situations, making it a popular option for many people who can’t get relief from these conditions.
Although this hasn’t been extensively tested in humans, certain studies have shown that chickens that have been fed a stevia diet lay significantly thicker shells that contain a much higher content of calcium than average eggs. This has been extrapolated to humans, meaning that it could potentially help build stronger bones and decrease the chances of osteoporosis.
The wide range of antioxidant compounds found in stevia makes it an ideal dietary supplement for cancer prevention. Quercetin, kaempferol, and the other glycoside compounds in stevia help to eliminate free radicals in the body, thereby preventing them from mutating healthy cells into cancer cells. Antioxidants also help to prevent premature aging, cognitive malfunction, and various other serious conditions like heart disease.
A Final Word of Caution: Although there was some uncertainty about the health effects of stevia over the long term, research continues to support its use as a sweetener and as a food additive. However, there might be an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to ragweed, marigolds, daisies, and related plants. Also, some people have complained of bloating and cramping when eating stevia, as well as occasional dizziness or headaches. These cases are rare, and stevia remains a safe and beneficial sweetener and plant additive for people around the world!