If you are anything like me then the thought of sitting down with a block of chocolate and a nice sweet cup of tea at the end of the day can make your stomach rumble. But unfortunately guzzling sweet foods and drinks with gay abandon can lead to a multitude of health issues. Namely problems with blood sugar which can result in energy fluctuations, mood disturbances, immune dysfunction, weight gain and eventually diabetes.
But trying going cold turkey on sweet foods and drinks can be fraught with pangs and cravings (2am Moro bar cravings in fact). So, many people reach for one of the multitude of artificial sweeteners in the belief that they will not contribute the same damaging health effects of sugar. But unfortunately, although heavily marketed by the corporations that profit from them, most artificial sweeteners are not the healthy alternative they claim to be, with some being linked to health conditions and even to increasing appetite.
Fortunately there are some genuinely healthy sweetening alternatives available, and one of these is the herb stevia. Heralding from the wilds of South America, the very sweet leaves of Stevia rebaudiana have been used by the Guarani people of Paraguay for centuries to sweeten their traditional maté tea and various foods. The plant was first discovered by the western world in 1899 by an Italian botanist doing plant research in South America and by 1931 the chemical constituents that give stevia its sweet taste were discovered. These compounds, stevioside and rebaudioside, were shown to be 250–300 times sweeter than sugar, with zero calories and no observable effect on blood sugar levels.
Stevia is not just another alternative sweetener on the market; it also seems that stevia may have other benefits for supporting optimal health and vitality. The Guarani people believed that stevia strengthened the heart and recent research suggests that steviosides within stevia may indeed support healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular function. In Paraguay and Brazil stevia is prescribed by physicians for supporting people with diabetes and, lo and behold, recent research suggests that stevia may nourish the pancreas, help to balance blood sugar levels and support healthy insulin sensitivity. This all adds up to major benefits for people with insulin resistance, energy fluctuations, diabetes, weight issues and cardiovascular disease.
As stevia is a non-fermentable sweetener it will not feed yeast making it suitable for people suffering from candida. Stevia is also shown to have an antibacterial activity which makes it a great gargle for when sore throats and mouth infections strike. And as stevia is unable to “feed” the bacteria which cause plaque on teeth, when swapped for sugars it may also help to reduce tooth decay.
But not all stevia products are created equal. Stevia, aside from having a very sweet taste; also contains alkaloids which can produce a bitter, licorice-like aftertaste. To mitigate this effect, stevia products must provide high ratios of steviosides and rebaudiosides. The higher the ratios the less bitter the product will be and the sweeter the experience. As stevia is significantly sweeter than sugar, stevia products may be blended with other healthy low calorie sweeteners like xylitol to add bulk so it is able to be measured and used for baking sweet and healthy treats and desserts.
So if you care about your health and are finding it hard to resist the pull of the dreaded sugar, give stevia a go, not only is it a sweet treat, it is also good for you!
By Rachel Dawson
Nutritionist & Medical Herbalist (Hons)
Health & Herbs International