Stevia: An Organic Sugar Substitute with Zero Calories

Spoon spilling sugar onto a cup
Photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash

Processed sugar is a substance that a majority of the human population is addicted to. From fizzy drinks to our favorite chocolates, a lot of today’s everyday dietary items are overflowing with processed sugar. You may have heard of the statement that a 250 ml serving of carbonated drinks has seven teaspoons of processed sugar in it or you may have heard some associated version of this.  

Processed sugar is packed with calories, and that makes its excessive use detrimental to the human body. Having more sugary items in your daily diet can shoot up the total calorie count to unhealthy levels. Our contemporary lifestyles with minimal physical activity can’t burn down all those excess calories that we consume in the form of sugar. Nearly one-third of the US population is suffering from obesity, and the use of excessive sugar products is one of the main reasons behind that.  

Sugar with Zero Calories

Sugar substitutes with zero calories and without their typical characteristics have been around for quite some time. Diabetic patients, for instance, have been using artificial sweeteners for their caffeine drinks for decades. However, all those sugar substitutes are synthetic. Moreover, they are not feasible to be used as a wider substitute for regular sugar. In addition, there have been studies that associate these types or sweeteners with cancer and other diseases.

Stevia: The Organic Sweetener?

Stevia Sugar Substitute
Photo SS

Amid all the sugar substitutes available in the market, stevia extract might be the only organic option. Stevia is a leafy plant that belongs to the botanical family of ragweed. Stevia has a variety of sub-species from different geographic regions. For instance, stevia known as candy leaf is mostly cultivated in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  On the other hand, some of its species are native to Paraguay and Brazil.

The stevia strains grown in South America are more in demand because they are sweeter than any other of its species. It is believed that native people in the region have been using stevia as a natural sweetener for hundreds of years.  

Not Like Regular Organic Sweeteners

Jar of sugar cubes

There are multiple organic sweeteners. Sugarcane is the single largest organic source for sugar production. Moreover, the roots of sugar beets are also used to produce natural sweeteners. All these organic sweeteners have one thing in common, i.e. they are packed with calories.

Stevia, on the other hand, is distinguished from the other organic sweeteners because it is completely free of calories. This quality of stevia makes it a sought-after commodity in the market of sugar substitute products.

Before we delve into the details of the nutritional use of stevia and its implications, it would be interesting to have a brief look at the history of this zero-calorie sweetener plant.

History of Stevia

An Italian botanist, Moises Santiago Bertoni, is believed to have discovered stevia at the end of the 19th century in Paraguay. It is important to mention that native Paraguayans were using the plant for hundreds of years. They used to call it kaahe (sweet herb) in their native language. From being used as a medicine ingredient to a sweetener, stevia already had extensive use when Bertoni stumbled upon this plant. At the time of discovery, Stevia was mostly grown in the wild, but after its saplings were identified and brought across the globe, it quickly turned into an easily available herb.    

Benefits of Stevia

A stevia leaf has zero calories, but it is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar. Apart from providing zero-calorie sweetness in foods and drinks, stevia has also been studied for some of its medical implications. For instance, a study conducted last year indicated that stevia has shown positive effects against endocrine disorders. However, that was not a conclusive study. To make the medical use of stevia acceptable on a professional level, more research is definitely required.

Stevia as a Sugar Substitute and FDA Directives

Stevia is currently a part of the global sugar substitute market. However, the FDA has a contingency that only allows a particular extract (high purity steviol glycosides) safe for consumption. They have warned against the use of stevia leaves and crude extracts. The federal regulatory body believes that not enough research exists to back the use of untreated and whole stevia leaves. The FDA cites that crude stevia samples have not been tested for their effect on blood sugar levels. Moreover, researchers have yet to find the stevia effects on cardiovascular, reproductive and excretory systems.

It has also been noted that the ingestion of untreated stevia might lead to lower blood pressure. Under normal circumstances this would be a benefit; however, without maintaining control or monitoring of your blood pressure, it could be risky. Moreover, scientists believe that stevia has unknown effects on anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory activities within the body. This vagueness definitely makes it risky to use stevia in its raw form.

Market Overview of the Sugar Substitute Industry

Three years ago, the market for sugar substitutes was capped at $13 billion. It was also forecasted that it would expand to $16.5 billion by the end of 2020.  In 2000, 18% of US adults were using artificial sweeteners. By 2012, this number went up to 24%. The US Department of Agriculture has concluded that US citizens have dropped the use of added sugar in the new millennium. All these findings clearly suggest that there is a lot of potentials for stevia to become the leading sugar substitute given that it has received the required scientific approval.

Zero-Calorie Items Might Not be the Ultimate Solution

Theoretically, cutting down calorie intake to minimum levels is the ultimate solution to deal with obesity. However, many nutritionists believe that that’s not the case. Some research studies have also raised doubts regarding the overselling of zero-calorie items to shed extra pounds. A study conducted in 2014 revealed that a low-calorie diet could lead to the development of overeating behavior in animals.

All things considered, more research is needed to validate the intended benefits of stevia. Moreover, it is also imperative to assess the actual effects of low-calorie diets on obesity in more detail. We would also advise our readers to not add stevia to their diet without prior consultation from certified physicians.