South Americans have been using stevia for centuries. Native to tropical climates, stevia has also been included in diets in Paraguay, Brazil, Korea and China for years. However, it's only recently that stevia has become the “hot” new alternative to sugar north of the equator, and it's now readily available throughout the United States and Europe.
The Basic Facts on Stevia
Stevia is thirty times sweeter than sugar and has no aftertaste. Its claim to fame is that it's the all-natural alternative to artificial sweeteners. An attractive attribute of stevia, which has yet to be fully proven, is that it has little to no effect on blood glucose levels. Some even claim it may have a positive effect. However, fully replacing sugar with stevia in your diet can be dangerous as it may cause blood sugar levels to drop too low. The long-term physical effects of stevia have yet to be fully tested.
Where Stevia Has Been
In the past, stevia could only be found in health food stores, but it's now begun to replace artificial sweeteners in many consumer products, such as soft drinks, gum, yogurt, and even wine. Stevia can also be used as a replacement for sugar in baking — however, due to its much higher level of sweetness, it has to be used in comparatively reduced amounts.
However, stevia has had a rocky relationship with the United States. In 1991, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned stevia due to studies that showed the sweetener was linked to cancer. By 1995, a new study disproved the cancer link, and stevia was distributed in the States as a supplement, but not as a sweetener.
In its initial form of distribution, stevia was sold as a ground-up powder of the plant leaves. This powder was quite sweet, but also had a very bitter aftertaste, which limited its ability to be used as a sweetener. Manufacturers quickly found a fix to the aftertaste issue, and out of the 100 species of the stevia plant, they discovered the one — stevia rebaudina — which has no aftertaste. Now all stevia products are derived from this type.
But Is Stevia Safe Now?
In comparison to other artificial sweeteners, stevia is one of the “safest” options. A study conducted at UCLA in 2008 found that stevia could presumably contribute to cancer. However, there is a lack of concrete research on the long-term effects of stevia.
Interestingly, over forty years ago, Japan banned the use of the majority of artificial sweeteners in consumer products. The Japanese then conducted over 40,000 clinical studies on stevia, and it became the only artificial sweetener the Japanese public was allowed to consume.
Overall, stevia is one of the best options amongst other artificial sweeteners. Due to the lack of studies on long-term effects, consuming stevia in large amounts isn’t recommended. However, as with most things in life, moderation is key when it comes to any artificial sweetener, including stevia. Once further research is conducted, stevia could potentially be considered a great all-natural sugar substitute.