Stevia leaves

Stevia, stevia rebaudiana, is a plant herb native to South America. It is named after the Spanish botanist Stevus. The plant has been in use for more than 1500 years as a sugar substitute particularly by people whose diet is largely based on carbohydrate.

Steviol glycosides is a compound extracted from the plant leaves which are 150 times sweeter than sugar (may vary according to different estimates commensurate with the type of extract). Steviosides have negligible impact on the blood glucose making them preferable as a sugar substitute.

Stevia is called honey leaf or sugar leaf and by many other names in each province based on its usage. Even though it is essentially used as a sweetener, it is used in many medicinal preparations.

Since after 1970’s, the use of saccharin and cyclamate as sugar substitute were gradually reduced and stevia has been put to use. Many countries in the world now permit use of stevia though off and on some countries have banned the use and also subsequently permitted the usage both in diet and in medicines.

Purified aqueous extract of the plant leaves yield steviosides which are then developed as sweeteners. China is the largest exporter of stevia in the world. Many soft drinks and beverages sold in the market worldwide by many multinational companies use stevia as sweetener. Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener and steviosides are not known to produce any side effect.

Besides being used as a sweetener, the stevia leaves are also used as diet supplement in some countries. Dried leaves are used in commercial preparation of water extract from which the needed compounds are extracted.

Some of the health benefits of stevia as a diet and sweetener are:

Weight management

Since the extract of stevia leaves are calorie-free, its use as substitute for sugar prevents the gaining of weight by the body. As it is very well known that consumption of raw or refined sugar either in drinks or other food preparations do increase the weight of the body as sugar is a high calorie food. Here comes stevia as a protector by preventing weight gain. However it should be understood that consumption of stevia alone do not facilitate weight loss and hence is not used in weight reduction techniques.

Diabetic friendly

Steviosides or other sweetening compounds prepared from stevia pass through the digestive tract intact and the liver after the metabolism process excretes the sweeting agent through urine. By this process the blood glucose level or insulin level is not increased making stevia as a much sought after sweetener by diabetics. Steviol glycosides are not absorbed by the body and are not retained in the body either.

Regulates Blood pressure

Stevia leaves have the potential to dilate the blood vessels thereby regulate the blood pressure. But only large quantity of stevia leaves consumption alone can give the desired regulatory benefit. The diuretic nature of the plant increases the output of urine and along with the urine, excess sodium is also excreted.

Stabilizes sugar levels

Food and dairy products prepared using stevia are harmless to all types of people including diabetics and children. Particularly for children who are in the habit of consuming huge quantities of chocolates and other dairy products regularly use of stevia is highly beneficial. Since stevia extract is both calories free and do not add to blood glucose levels safety of children is assured.

Ensures oral hygiene

Stevia is used in oral hygiene products like tooth pastes and mouth wash as it prevents gingivitis and cavities by its properties of bacteria prevention.

Treats skin ailments

Because of its ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria, stevia extract is used in topical ointments prepared for skin care. Particularly in skin conditions like dermatitis and eczema stevia is helpful. In addition to skin care, the antioxidants in stevia act as anti-aging agents thereby prevents premature aging.

Eliminates free radicals

Compounds like quercetin and kaempferol in stevia has the potential to eliminate free radicals from the body. Free radicals are harmful bacteria produced in the body during metabolism which need to be eliminated, as free radicals accelerate the growth of harmful tissues which may lead to conditions like cancer. Kaempferol is known to cure pancreatic cancer.

The predominant use of stevia is as a sweetener. But it contains many mineral and vitamins necessary for a good health.  When the leaf is consumed as a diet, it provides many other benefits too. It contains fiber, protein, iron, magnesium, sodium, potassium, vitamins A and C. It also contains many antioxidants like, quercetin, tannins, flavonoids etc.

  • Stevia is used in a variety of food preparations like ready to eat vegetables, pickles, yogurts, ice cream, candy, chewing gum, sauces and desserts as a sugar substitute mainly in order to contain the total calorie of the product and to enhance taste of sugar.
  • Being a natural and herbal product use of stevia leaf or its extract can be presumed to be safe for use by people of all ages with other existing medical conditions.
  • Raw stevia leaf or its normal extract is used in diet preparations. But only extracts with high purity is used in products where used as a sweetener.

Stevia is available in stores both in liquid form and powder form with different brand names based on the country of manufacture.

Kripa Sivasubramanian, MBA, earned her Master’s degree in Business. After a long stint in the Technology sector, she took up courses in natural medicine and yoga. Ms. Kripa is certified in Ayurvedic yoga for Dosha. She is also certified by Stanford University School of Medicine in Introduction to Food and Health.