In a world where sugar consumption-based diseases are increasingly on the rise, stevia, to many, has now become the superhero to the rescue. Pitched by the media as a “natural” alternative to artificial sweeteners, the stevia plant is a native to Paraguay. Not only is this plant 300 times sweeter than natural sugar, but it also comes bearing zero calories. Therefore, stevia has very little to no effect on our blood sugar levels.
Stevia is 100% natural. This is why people automatically think it makes for a healthier choice as compared to artificial sweeteners that come loaded with chemicals.
But is it really all that different?
Before we find out, here’s a quick look at what stevia is, and how it is different from the regular sugar that we eat.
What Is Stevia And How Is It Different From Regular Sugar?
Although sugar and stevia are both derived from natural sources, the two are fairly different from one another.
- Source And Process: Stevia is a plant-based sweetener that is made from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana plants. First, the stevia plant leaves are dried. The concentrated extract obtained in the process is then filtered and turned into powdered, crystalline, or liquid form. The packets of stevia that you are available at department and grocery stores is not the pure herb form, but the processed extract. On the other hand, commercially produced sugar or sucrose, is extracted from sugarcane and sugar beet.
- Taste: The final product is about 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, and many people may complain of a bitter after-taste.
- Calories: One of the reasons why stevia is so popular is because it is so low in calories. A single packet of processed stevia which is almost equivalent to 2 teaspoons of sugar, gives you about 5 calories and 1 gram’s worth of carbohydrates. The pure extract, in liquid form of the sweetener (you will often find this at health food stores) contains zero calories. 2 teaspoons of sugar, on the other hand, gives you about 30 calories and 8 grams of carbohydrates. This is not a problem unless you’re a sugar junkie, which is when all the calories you consume over time add up to cause a whole lot of problems like diabetes type 2 and cardiac arrest.
All Stevia Is Not The Same
Stevia as the natural green plant that one can grow in the garden or buy in dried leaf or tincture form contains zero calories and is considered safe. Thus, it can meet the ultimate goal of sweetening your morning milkshake without making you fat. This is a huge benefit for people who have an impossible sweet tooth and a tendency to put on weight. This also means more stable blood sugar levels, a lower risk of diabetes and cardiac arrests, and a healthy insulin resistance – health problems, otherwise associated with a high intake of regular sugar.
Since this is the purest form of stevia, you are also less likely to suffer from any side effects.
However, the stevia made available to us on supermarket shelves may not be as natural as the marketing would have us believe. Powdered and bleached forms of stevia extract may be FDA approved but are made to go through intense chemical processes to get to the final product.
The extract is highly refined, and the powder is blended with plenty of sugar alcohols. These are a type of carbohydrate that isn’t easily digested by our bodies and can cause severe stomach discomfort. In addition to this, it is also bulked up with maltodextrin – a refined starch that breaks down the glucose. To make it as sweet as regular table sugar, it is further pumped with other carbohydrates that add to the calorific content. Therefore, by buying store-bought stevia, the entire purpose of consuming sweetness at the cost of zero calories is lost. Instead, you’re unknowingly taking in a whole lot of unnecessary chemicals that your body doesn’t need.
The Final Verdict: Moderation Is Key
Whether stevia is safe for consumption or not largely depends on whether you’re eating the processed version or its naturally occurring herbal version.
It is clear by now that the processed version that you see at stores is not as natural and healthy for your body as you thought it to be. On the other hand stevia in dried leaf or pure extract form comes chemical-free with no calories that are a threat to the appearance of your waistline.
This, however, does not mean that you can consume pure stevia extract by the spoonfuls. Remember, like all other sweeteners, stevia still contains very little nutritional value, regardless of whether it has been processed or not.
Also, most of us don’t even eat sugar or stevia just by itself. It is the way we incorporate it into our meals that makes all the difference. Your blood sugar levels are impacted by how you mix your foods. For instance, the sugar in a cookie made of refined flour will cause your insulin to spike a lot more than a few helpings of honey served over protein-rich yogurt.
Therefore, it is best to stick to the conventional words of wisdom – moderation is key. Don’t waste your time worrying about what sweeteners are healthier than sugar because simply put – healthy sweeteners don’t exist. They aren’t nutrient-dense, even though they may have no calories. Therefore, reducing your overall intake of all added sweeteners is your best approach.
So regardless of whether you’re eating regular ice cream or a stevia-sweetened cookie, consider both to be nothing more than an occasional treat.