Stevia sweetener is a kind of natural sweetener that has become increasingly popular with people who need to avoid sugar but do not want to use artificial sweeteners. It is extracted from the plant called Stevia rebaudiana, which contains a sweetening agent called stevioside.
Stevia rebaudiana belongs to the Asteracease family and it originates from South America. Because of the steviosides, glycosides and rebaudiosides, this plant is very sweet to taste. People native to the areas where stevia grows have been using it as a sweetener for thousands of years. Today, it can be used fresh, added directly to coffee and tea, or in the form of extract which can be purchased in drugstores and health food shops.
Dried and unprocessed stevia leaves are ten to 15 times sweeter than sugar, while its extract is 200 or 300 times sweeter. Its taste is somewhat bitter and resembles liquorice. Stevia sweetener is mostly used as a substitute for sugar for manufacturing sweet foods.
Stevia safety and side effects
The use of stevia as a sweetener is still controversial, because while some experts claim it to be completely safe, others believe it has significant adverse effects.
Stevia leaves were used for a very long time by the native peoples in Paraguay. They have not reported any side effects, but when stevia became popular in other parts of the world, several studies were conducted to investigate its potential side effects. Still, most of the research had positive results and found stevia plant to be safe and non-toxic.
In many countries, stevia sweetener is approved for use as a dietary supplement. It has several health benefits, one of the major ones being its low glycemic index and the fact it contains zero calories. Many experts believe that stevia can help in treating the conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood levels of sugar, obesity and osteoporosis. However, these allegations are yet to be confirmed through clinical trials.
As for the side effects, they are negligible in case of pure, unadulterated stevia. However, there are manufacturers that add other ingredients, mostly chemical, to stevia extract and supplements, and it is uncertain whether those are safe for use.
The Food and Drugs Administration in the United States had not approved stevia as a food additive. It has, however, mentioned it as a safe supplement.
Some of the potential side effects include allergies, low blood pressure and malabsorption. These side effects have only been reported in cases when large amounts of stevia had been consumed.