Society has become very health conscious in recent years. The medical community, the government, and the media promote the benefits of regular exercise, a healthy, balanced diet, and regulating daily calorie intake And because sugar is high in calories, many people choose artificial sweeteners that are either low in calories or, in some cases, contain no calories at all.
Using an artificial sweetener in place of sugar can help to reduce a person’s daily caloric intake, but it is important to understand the differences between real sugar and sugar substitutes, such as stevia, and the effects sugar substitutes may have on your body.
About Stevia Sweeteners
Stevia is a sugar substitute derived from a South American Chrysanthemum plant known as Stevia rebaudiana.The leaves of this plant are especially sweet, so it is not surprising that stevia-based sweeteners can be 250 to 300 times sweeter than natural sugar. What may come as a surprise, though, is the fact that this sweetener has absolutely no calories.
Nowadays, stevia is grown in South America, North America, and Asia. Stevia has been approved for use as a dietary supplement in the United States, and in recent years has started being used as a food additive globally in products such as soda, chewing gum, yogurt, and vitamin water. In Japan, for example, extracts of the stevia plant can even be found in products like soy sauce, pickled vegetables, or seafood.
Stevia is now being used in various countries, including China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Malaysia. However, stevia products have not yet been approved by the European commission.
Stevia is a sweetener that is non-nutritive – meaning it has no nutritional value and contains zero calories. For this reason, stevia sweeteners are used to complement some weight management programs. And because of its extreme sweetness, a very small amount of stevia can take the place of sugar, making it a cheap alternative.
Unlike sugar, consumption of stevia does not cause an increase in blood glucose levels. So, it can be used by diabetic patients if approved by their doctor. Another benefit of stevia is that it does not promote tooth decay.
There is no doubt that stevia can provide many benefits that sugar cannot. But there have been questions about how safe it is for our bodies and how it might affect our overall health.
Stevia sweeteners are considered to be safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for consumption in the form of a sweetener, or sugar substitute. And in 2008, stevia was also approved for use as a food additive by both the FDA and a global panel of experts known as the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). However, the FDA declares only certain highly-refined forms of stevia safe for consumption.
Though it is often referred to as a natural sweetener, it is important to note that stevia must be processed in order to meet FDA regulations. Crude extracts of the plant, as well as whole stevia leaves, have not been declared safe for use. More research is needed on the effects of these products on blood sugar as well as on cardiovascular, renal, and reproductive systems.
In addition, stevia has the potential to cause side effects, including:
• Bloating or fullness
• Muscle pain
• Decrease in blood pressure
• Sudden allergies to ragweed or other related plants
Also, certain groups of people are more at risk than others of complications from stevia and should consult a physician before using stevia as a sweetener or consuming products containing stevia. At-risk groups include:
• Pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding
• People with low blood pressure – stevia can cause a decrease in blood pressure, potentially to unsafe levels
• Diabetics – studies have shown that stevia does not increase blood glucose levels; however, it is recommended that diabetics consult their physician prior to use
Remember that some foods containing stevia sweeteners instead of sugar may contain other additives, so always check product labels and consult a physician with any questions when adjusting to a new diet.
Stevia as a sugar substitute is receiving acceptance nearly all over the world. The global market for stevia is estimated to be worth $2 billion by the end of 2011, with nations such as China, Korea, and Japan holding the largest market share for stevia products. But despite its wide use and approval, there remains some question about stevia’s safety, particularly for at-risk groups such as pregnant women or people with high blood pressure. Be sure to consult a physician before using stevia if you are part of an at-risk group.