We’re in the midst of the holiday season and with it an increased consumption of sweet and baked goods. At a time where so many of the foods commercially available are laden with sugar, and excess sugar consumption has been found to be detrimental to our health, it is important to find alternatives.
There are, of course, many alternatives to sugar, including honey, agave, molasses as well as sugar substitutes that don’t add caloric content to the food. However, most of these calorie-free sugar substitutes come with consumer alerts. The latest one I saw was on a toxic chemical released in Splenda when it is heated. Studies found that dioxin, a cancer-causing compound, is released when Splenda, particularly sucralose, is cooked (Ji, 2018).
On the other hand, stevia is touted as the healthy alternative to sugar (Santana, 2018). I decided to learn more about it, and here is what I found.
What is Stevia?
Stevia is a sweetener extracted from a plant called Stevia rebaudiana. The plant is native to South America, particularly Brazil and Paraguay. Although the raw leaves can be used as a sweetener, what is commercially available comes from purified extracts that include stevioside. aglycone steviol, and steviol glycosides (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), 2018).
Stevia was used by tribal cultures for many years and was introduced into the mainstream market in the 1990’s due to its safety and affordability (Ji, 2017). However, only the purified extracts are Generally Recognized as Safe by the FDA, but pregnant and nursing women are cautioned against consuming any form of stevia, simply because there is no evidence of what effect it has on babies (MSKCC, 2018).
Stevia doesn’t provide any calories, and it comes in different forms, including as a concentrate and in crystallized, powder, and liquid forms, and thus can be used as a sugar substitute. It is 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, and should be used sparingly (Ji, 2017; Santana, 2018).
Benefits of Stevia
In addition to being a zero-calorie sweetener, stevia has been found to lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar, and is considered as an effective herb to be incorporated into a weight loss or diabetes supportive diet. It may also have antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, and liver and kidney protective effects (Ji, 2017; MSKCC, 2018).
When consumed in excess, stevia has been found to cause abdominal discomfort and nausea, among others. This occurred in patients who consumed 500 mg of stevia (MSKCC, 2018).
How to Consume Stevia
It isn’t recommended to swap stevia for sugar in regular recipes, since ½ teaspoon of stevia powder is as sweet as 1 cup of sugar. Replacing that quantity would maintain sweetness in the bake, but not bulk in ingredients, thus affecting the texture. Instead, find recipes that specifically use stevia products (Santana, 2018).
When using liquid, 1 teaspoon of liquid stevia is equivalent to 1 cup of sugar, as are 2 1g stevia packets. Many have found stevia to be bitter and add honey or maple syrup to improve the taste (Santana, 2018). This would increase the sugar content and may not be suitable for those with diabetes.
When selecting a stevia product, make sure to read the label to ensure it doesn’t contain fillers or natural or artificial flavors. Avoid the product if it contains inulin, silica, or maltodextrin (Santana, 2018). For instance, if you see products that say that 1 cup of stevia can be substituted for 1 cup of sugar, this is a good indication that the stevia product has fillers, and thus should be avoided.
As with any herbal product, it is best if you try stevia and see how your body reacts to it. No one product is going to be safe or gratifying for everyone. Start with small amounts, perhaps to sweeten tea or coffee, before using it in baking recipe. If your body tolerates it, then gradually experiment more with it.
MSKCC. (2018). Stevia. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Retrieved November 26, 2018 from https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/stevia
Ji, S. (2017). 4 sugar alternatives that won’t poison you. GreenMedInfo. Retrieved on November 26, 2018 from http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/4-sugar-alternatives-wont-poison-you
Ji, S. (2018). Consumer alert: Splenda releases toxic dioxin when heated. GreenMedInfo. Retrieved on November 26, 2018 from http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/sucraloses-splenda-harms-vastly-underestimated-baking-releases-dioxin?ct=t()
Santana, F. (2018). 5 sugar alternatives and how to use them. CleanPlates. Retrieved on November 26, 2018 from https://www.cleanplates.com/eat/healthy-pantry/5-sugar-alternatives-how-to-use-them/