Stevia: History and Benefits

As one of the most popular sweeteners to replace sugar, stevia has garnered much attention in recent years.

But stevia isn’t just a sweetener — it’s a plant that also offers unique benefits for wellness.

What is Stevia?

Stevia (SR) is a zero-calorie sugar substitute extracted from leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Native to the mountains between southern Brazil and northern Paraguay, the plant form of stevia has been used for hundreds of years.

While over 150 species of stevia exist, only S. rebaudiana is used for its sweetening properties.

Stevia is 200-400 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories. It is produced in powder, liquid or granulated form.

There are several glycosides in stevia that offer benefits for human wellness. Most notably are stevioside and rebaudioside. These aren’t fermentable, like sugar, but are heat and pH-stable molecules.

When you taste stevia in its common sweetener form, you can expect it to be a taste similar to sugar. It may taste sweet longer than table sugar and is also known to carry an aftertaste described as bitter or tasting like licorice (especially at high concentrations).

Stevia is also used as an ingredient in many dietary supplements.

A Brief History of Stevia

For over 1500 years, the Guarani peoples in South America are said to have used the stevia plant as a sweetener for teas, medicines, and food products (as a “sweet treat”). The plant was given its name after Spanish botanist and physician Petrus Jacobus Stevus.

Throughout Paraguay and Brazil, stevia has been used as a therapeutic plant for a large number of purposes.

Stevia was first recorded in scientific research in 1887 by Swiss botanist Moisés Santiago Bertoni. During the course of his work in eastern Paraguay, he noted that the Stevia rebaudiana plant offered a “sweet taste”.

In 1931, French chemists isolated the glycosides that make stevia sweet. In 1963, all active glycosides in stevia were identified.

In the 1970s, Japan was the first country to begin regularly using stevia as a replacement for cyclamate and saccharin in Coca-Cola products.

The FDA has been much slower to approve stevia in the United States. A purified version of stevia was approved for use in dietary supplements in 1994. Many brands of stevia-containing food products have been approved to date, although the FDA still does not approve stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts for use in food.

Wellness Benefits of Stevia

1. Helps Reduce Calorie Intake

Used as a sugar substitute, stevia can replace calorie-rich sugar and reduce the total calorie count of foods and beverages.

For people trying to lower calorie intake, stevia may be a great substitute for sugar.

2. Supports Metabolic Health

Limited research suggests stevia may support healthy blood sugar levels within the normal range and might be part of promoting metabolic health.

Stevia may also support normal healthy cholesterol levels and normal healthy blood pressure in already healthy people.

3. Good for Reducing Sugar Consumption

Because it sweetens foods and beverages, stevia can help cut down on the amount of sugar you eat. Sugar has a number of detrimental effects on human health, which is why dieticians and physicians generally recommend a low-sugar lifestyle.

This is particularly important for children, who are typically used to high-sugar foods but may dislike transitioning to a low-sugar diet. It allows parents to replace sugar with the stevia plant, which is not associated with the same problems caused by sugar.

4. Easy On the Body

Many sugar substitutes are known to cause allergic reactions or sensitivities in certain people. However, purified stevia extract is not known to cause adverse effects throughout its long history of research.

How to Use Stevia

There are multiple ways to use stevia, including as a sweetener or as an ingredient in a dietary supplement.

  • Powdered/granular sweetener: Stevia can be used in powdered form to sweeten foods and drinks. There are several different stevia blends, so make sure you’re aware of what additional ingredients may be used in the blend you purchase. Stevia baking blends can be used for sugar-free dessert baking.
  • Liquid sweetener: Liquid stevia is great for adding a sweet taste to your morning coffee, smoothie, or even homemade hot chocolate.
  • Dietary supplement: Stevia is frequently found in dietary supplements for metabolic and immune support.

Is Stevia Safe?

To date, there have been no major safety concerns for stevia at normal levels of daily consumption.

The World Health Organization (WHO) approved an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of steviol glycosides at 4 mg/kg of body weight. This ADI has been echoed by The European Food Safety Authority.

The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center warns healthcare professionals that “Laboratory studies indicate weak mutagenic activity with large doses.”

However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest published a review that no published carcinogenicity results exist for rebaudioside A or stevioside.

The Bottom Line

Stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener and dietary supplement ingredient that can replace sugar and promotes a healthy lifestyle. Try it the next time you’re making a smoothie to find out what it’s all about!