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Stevia is an intensely sweet-tasting plant which has been used since the 16th century in making tea and sweetening other beverages. Originally the plant was found just in Brazil and Paraguay but now is also grown in Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, and China. It is used as a no-calorie sweetener in drinks as a healthy alternative to added sugar. Stevia is a ‘zero-calorie’ ingredient and is around 200 times sweeter than sugar.
What is Stevia?
Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni or Stevia is a bushy shrub belonging to the Sunflower community. Currently produced in many countries, Stevia has 150 species. The plant can also be grown at home. The sweet components of the plant are extracted and purified to make glycosides. Before purification, the processed leaves contain a bitter taste and a foul smell. Thus, it is bleached or decoloured to remove that. The entire process takes about 40 steps. After these steps, the sweetener is made.
Health Benefits of Stevia
Stevia has very low-calorie content which puts it in the ‘no-calorie’ food category. Its sweet taste enables it to be used as a sugar replacement. The stevia leaf is not known to possess any nutritional value except carbohydrates.
There are many medicinal and health benefits to the plant:
People with diabetes can consume stevia instead of table sugar. Diabetic health plan suggests as much low consumption of white sugar as possible, but at the same time, they are advised against the chemical-laden sweeteners which are unhealthy. Diabetic patients can go for a natural sweeteners like stevia.
Stevia contains bio-molecules which stimulate the pancreatic cells to release more insulin. More insulin means lower blood sugar level. It has been observed that chemically made zero-calorie sweeteners increase the blood sugar levels even more than table sugar. But in a study on diabetic rats, it was found that treating them to 250 to 500 milligrams of stevia every day reduced the balanced insulin resistance and the blood sugar levels in the rats. Human studies show that consuming stevia before food reduces the after-meal sugar levels. Thus, it aids in glucose regulation too.
Nutrition and Cancer, in 2012, conducted a study and found a connection between stevia and breast cancer. In the study, it was observed that stevioside enhances cell death in the body and decreases the stress pathways which cause cancer growth. The stevia extracts also stop tumorous production at an early stage and stop it from developing into cancer. One of the components of the stevia plant also has anti-inflammatory qualities which are more effective than the anti-inflammatory drug, indomethacin. The studies show that stevia has the potential for natural cancer treatment.
3. Weight loss
Added sugars contribute to a total of 13 per cent calories consumed by an average human being daily. The two negative impacts of such high sugar consumption are weight gain and increased blood sugar levels. Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener and is plant-based. Thus if the highest quality stevia extract is consumed moderately instead of table sugar, it can decrease the calorie levels as well as sugar intake levels in a person. Low carb diets like KETO give a prominent position to stevia extracts. By keeping the calorie consumption in check, problems like obesity can be kept away.
Stevia extracts help to keep cholesterol levels in check. In 2009, a study carried out gave the results that consumption of stevia had massive changes in the cholesterol levels of humans. It did not just effectively decrease the serum cholesterol levels and LDL (the bad cholesterol) but also increased the levels of good cholesterol or HDL.
5. Blood pressure
A study found that stevia has qualities to decrease blood pressure. The extract dilates the blood vessels and increases sodium excretions which brings down the diastolic blood pressure and keeps it at a healthy level. All these positive results from the study have given hope that stevia can help in controlling the blood pressure levels of hypertension patients.
6. Lung injuries
Treatments with the usage of stevia have shown that it can help in treating acute lung injury. Stevioside can decrease the wet-to-dry ratio in the lungs, and thus the damage caused due to lipopolysaccharides can be curbed. It also decreases the production of proteins which have an anti-inflammatory effect.
7. Fatty liver
Stevia has a positive effect on the fat levels of the liver which causes hepatitis and other liver diseases. The effect of stevia on metabolic pathways leads to a decrease in liver steatosis levels. Liver steatosis occurs when the liver is invaded with too much fat. The reduction occurs when this fat breaks down, and sugar energy production is improved. Abnormal placement of fat on the liver also contributes to obesity which can be curbed through stevia.
8. Kidney disorders
Stevia concentrations are used to cure chronic kidney diseases. According to a study, stevia leaves reduces oxidative stress which in turn reduces kidney damage. The leaves also help in managing the diabetes-induced kidney disorders.
Many studies have shown that stevia affects fertility too. The weight loss experienced due to stevia leaves also affects the male reproductive organs. However recent studies have found contrasting results. There have been cases where stevia does not affect male reproduction at all. But research is still going on to come to a decision quickly.
Apart from these major health benefits of stevia, its extracts and leaves also have many other forms of health benefits. Added sugar in drinks and beverages affect the calorie levels in children. Thus stevia helps in reducing childhood obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
Stevia has also been found to reduce the bacterial level in the mouth. It is a popular additive in toothpaste and mouthwashes today. It also prevents gingivitis, cavities and gum problems.
Stevia also helps in treating skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis. The topical application works like steroids and helps to curb the spread of bacteria.
Unlike white sugar, stevia increases bone mineral density and helps in treating osteoporosis. It also increases calcium metabolism.
Stevia also contains anti-diarrheal, diuretic, antihypertensive, anti-hyperglycaemic and immune-modulatory qualities.
How to use stevia?
In general diet, stevia can be used as a replacement of table sugar. A pinch of stevia provides the sweetness of one teaspoon of white sugar.
The ways to use stevia is:
- Adding to tea or coffee
- In baking
- Adding it to homemade lemonade
- Sprinkled over cereal
- Added in a smoothie
- Sprinkled over dairy products like yoghurt and ice-cream
Certain brands make stevia which can be used specifically for baking. They suggest it be used in half the measurement of what is given for sugar. Other brands don’t make it specifically for baking. Replacing stevia for sugar takes a lot of trial and error to find the perfect amount for preferred taste and texture.
Side effects of stevia
Studies have shown that there are no major side effects of stevia. But it is still advised to consume it in moderation. Although stevia leaves and extracts are safe, their impact on health is still unknown. People who have diabetes and high blood pressure have been advised to monitor their levels regularly. There have been incidents where stevia worsens conditions after consumption. So it is advisable to consult the doctor before including it in the diet.
Although stevia does not cause allergy, people who are already allergic to the marigold, daisies, ragweed, and other such plants have shown allergic symptoms to stevia. Often, some people have complained about bloating, headaches, dizziness or cramping after eating stevia. Such cases are rare, but they have been recorded.
Stevia is considered safe, even for pregnant women. But over-consumption may have negative effects. It rarely causes side effects and is much sweeter than sugar. Whole-leaf stevia is not yet approved for commercial sale, but it can be grown at home. Using raw stevia leaf shouldn’t cause any harm. But it is not advisable for pregnant women to consume the leaves directly.
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