Is stevia a healthy substitute for sugar?

Stevia: 6 advantages, 5 disadvantages & 6 alternatives to sugar substitutes

Stevia is considered a healthy alternative to conventional table sugar. But is that also true? Below you will find all the important information about plant-based sugar substitutes, from the greatest advantages and disadvantages to the best alternatives to stevia.

What stevia actually is

What stevia actually is

Stevia is obtained from the plant of the same name, Stevia rebaudiana. The herbaceous plant originally comes from South America. With the increase in popularity and economic use of stevia, the growing area of ​​the plant, which is also known as honey herb, sweet herb or sweet leaf, expanded. The sweetener is now used worldwide. It is not only cultivated in numerous South American countries, but also in China, the USA and Thailand.

Stevia is a concentrated extract from the natural components of the stevia plant, the so-called steviol glycosides. In the EU, this extract has only been available as a powder, dried, tablet or liquid since 2011. You can buy it online or in retail stores.

Buy stevia

It is already added to numerous foods during production, but the addition of stevia is only permitted for certain food groups. These groups include sweet foods such as jams, muesli, candies, ice cream, fruit nectar and yogurt. Cocoa and chocolate products, beer, sauces, soups and fish products also contain stevia. In addition, the plant extract is often found in diet products under the name E960.

Stevia and Sugar: The Benefits

Stevia and Sugar: The Benefits

The sweetener is already present in many everyday foods. Not without reason, because the sugar substitute has advantages that make it a useful addition to your diet.

Sweetness

One of the greatest advantages of stevia is its great sweetness. This sweetness comes from the previously mentioned plant components steviol glycosides, which are also known as steviosides. Steviosides are three hundred times sweeter than the refined sugar sucrose. Even the smallest amounts of stevia are therefore completely sufficient to replace crystalline sugar over a large area. For example, 20 grams of stevia is sweet enough to bake a cake that, according to the recipe, requires several hundred grams of table sugar.

Calories

Given this sweetening power, it is not surprising that stevia is preferred in diet products. Diet products are foods with a reduced number of calories that can help you lose weight quickly as well as healthy weight loss. Stevia actually has a relatively high calorie content: 100 grams of stevia contain around 370 kilocalories. For comparison: the same amount of granulated sugar has around 400 calories.

At first glance, the difference between stevia and sugar isn't that big in this regard. The sweetness of stevia is decisive here again. Just a few grams of stevia - with correspondingly fewer calories - give a diet product the same sweetness as large amounts of sugar, which have significantly more calories. So if you want to consciously avoid the intake of calories in your diet, you have a suitable alternative in the sweetener.

Healthy for teeth

The most serious effects of a sugary diet include lasting damage to the oral flora and teeth. Sucrose and other types of sugar such as glucose and fructose form a breeding ground for bacteria, which in turn contribute to plaque and tooth decay. The situation is completely different with the steviosides that make up stevia: The sweet plant substances offer harmful bacteria a significantly poorer basis for spreading. They are said to even inhibit their growth due to their content of plant pigments chlorophyll and vitamin C. Stevia as a sugar substitute can thus strengthen the oral flora and help you avoid tooth damage.

Stevia for diabetes

Its sweetening power also makes stevia an alternative for diabetics. They rely on avoiding large amounts of sugar. But this is not the only reason why the plant substance is relevant to the diet of diabetics. In contrast to refined sugar, stevia has little effect on the pancreas. It also has a very low score on the glycemic index, which measures the effects of food on blood sugar levels. A direct connection between the consumption of stevia and a lowering of blood sugar levels and high blood pressure has not yet been scientifically established.

Diverse uses in the kitchen

In the kitchen, stevia is interesting for another reason: The sweetener is very stable, which means it can be used in a variety of ways. It does not change its taste or consistency, even under high heat. You can use stevia as an additive for hot tea and refreshing lemonade, for baking cakes and for preparing ice-cold desserts. Plus, you don't have to store it in any special way.

Baking with stevia

However, there is one thing you have to keep in mind when baking with stevia: The sweetener can effectively replace sugar as a flavor carrier. But not as a designer. When baking shortcrust pastry, for example, it is no problem to replace refined sugar with stevia. But if you want to prepare a sponge cake, you have to forego the use of stevia. Because ordinary sugar not only gives the pastry its taste, but also its airy consistency.

Disadvantages and side effects of stevia

One disadvantage of stevia: the taste

In addition to its benefits, there are a few things you should keep in mind when taking stevia.

taste

In small amounts, stevia is very sweet, but largely tasteless. If, on the other hand, you work with larger quantities, you will soon find that sweet cabbage has a characteristic taste of its own. This should be taken into account in the dosage. Many people quickly perceive larger amounts of stevia as bitter and compare the taste to liquorice. This is why the Latin American sweetener is particularly suitable as an addition to food and drinks that themselves have a strong taste, such as coffee.

Limited effect

As many advantages as stevia has, it can only have a limited effect in finished products. This is because stevia is often mixed with conventional sugar where it is added in food production. As a result, the affected food contains less sugar - and therefore also fewer calories - while at the same time the inherent taste of the stevia plant is softened. Buyers should therefore pay attention to the purity of stevia products.

Furthermore, sugar is usually not the only problematic component in many foods, especially in unhealthy foods. Chocolate products are an example of this: the sucrose in diet chocolate can be replaced by low-calorie stevia. Most of the calories come from the fat content of chocolate and can therefore not be replaced by steviosides.

Stevia unhealthy? The supposed cancer risk

Based on medical research, it has long been suspected that stevia promotes the development of cancer. This assumption has been clearly refuted by modern scientific knowledge. The outdated studies recorded an increased risk of cancer in animals that had been fed a high dose of stevia over a long period of time in the experiment.

To cause similar side effects in humans, you would have to ingest more than half your body weight in stevia every day. A moderate consumption of the plant extract does not have any harmful effects on your cells.

Stevia and food cravings

Another potential side effect is currently being controversially discussed in research: some medical professionals argue that the consumption of stevia could trigger an increased appetite. They suspect that the sweeteners in stevia simulate the brain's intake of calories that are hardly present in the low-dose plant extract. To compensate for this discrepancy, the brain can demand more food. This could lead to food cravings. However, such a side effect has not yet been proven with certainty.

Industrial processing

Stevia is a herbal product. Extracting the sweet steviosides from honey herb, however, is a highly chemical process. The sweeteners are removed from the plant in several steps and then cleaned again. The environmental standards in production are also dubious. Environmentally harmful aluminum salts are used during processing, which are often not disposed of ecologically after use.

That is why there is no such thing as organic stevia: Even if the plant is grown with ecological standards in mind, all organic characteristics of the sugar substitute are lost in the industrial production of stevia.

Buy and grow stevia plant

Buy and grow stevia plant

You can work around some of these disadvantages by growing the plant yourself. You can buy stevia for this purpose at selected garden centers. Growing the plant is not that difficult, because stevia is robust and easy to care for.

Growing your own home, however, harbors some imponderables. The original stevia plant has since been bred several times, but the exact ingredients of these different varieties have not been investigated. The composition and effect of a self-grown sweet leaf plant cannot therefore be predicted. The same goes for dried leaves, which you can buy online or at health food stores.

Alternatives to stevia

Alternatives to stevia

Stevia competes with common sugar for many reasons. But if you are not yet sure whether the plant extract is really the right alternative for you, you can also use other options. In the following you will find an overview for orientation.

Natural alternatives

Natural alternatives are sugar substitute products that, like stevia, are based on natural foods or plants and do not have to be chemically produced first. These include plant juices, honey, coconut blossom sugar, natural plant sugar, sugar alcohols and thaumatin

Syrups and concentrated juices

From agave syrup to sugar beet syrup, there are now numerous natural sweeteners that consist of the concentrated, thickened juice of various plants. The advantage of these thick juices is that they are produced more gently than stevia. That is why they contain many healthy minerals, trace elements and vitamins. Maple syrup and Co. are therefore often also available in organic versions and are suitable for a vegan diet.

But the gentle sugar substitutes also have disadvantages: They get their sweetness from pure fruit sugar, the fructose. In contrast to stevia, fructose can damage teeth; excessive consumption can also lead to intolerance to intolerance of sugar or even insulin resistance. In addition, most plant products have a lower sweetening power than table sugar or even stevia. You must therefore be careful not to overdose on the sweeteners.

honey

The same applies to honey. Undoubtedly, depending on the composition, the sweet spread has many precious minerals and ingredients. But honey, too, has a much lower sweetening power than white sugar and stevia and is therefore often used in larger quantities than is healthy. In addition, the sweetness of the honey also comes from the fructose of the collected flowers. Thus, it can cause intolerance reactions. There is also a low risk of contamination and bacterial infestation and the sweet bee nectar is not suitable for vegans.

Coconut blossom sugar

Another natural alternative to stevia is coconut blossom sugar. This sugar has a pleasant caramel taste. It also has a good value on the glycemic index and contains numerous healthy ingredients, including iron, which strengthens muscles, skin and hair. The zinc it contains also protects the skin and the immune system, while potassium has a positive effect on muscles. But at least in the western world, coconut blossom sugar is a relatively new alternative to other sweeteners, which is why the exact ingredients and their effects have not yet been adequately researched.

In addition, coconut blossom sugar is complex to extract. At a kilo price of twenty to forty euros, it is still relatively expensive at the moment. It also has to travel long distances before it can be bought in European supermarkets. If you want to pay attention to your ecological footprint, you should therefore use other alternatives.

Date sugar and Co.

The natural sweetness of many fruits can not only be used as a sugar substitute with syrups and juices, you can also fall back on the fruit itself. Dates naturally contain large amounts of fructose, which makes them ideal for use in the kitchen. Dates and figs, on the other hand, can be used both dried and fresh, especially when baking, in muesli or in yoghurt as a natural sugar substitute.

Overripe bananas can also be processed in the same way. These fruits have the advantage that they not only have a natural sweetness, but also have many vitamins and minerals. Dried dates can also be ground to a powder and in this state can be used as a substitute for brown sugar. However, the date sugar is not water-soluble and is therefore not suitable as an additive for drinks.

Goji berries also have a natural sweetness that can make the superfood a useful part of a low-sugar diet. However, with these foods too, the reduced sweetening power, the respective inherent taste, the risk of fructose overdosing and the limited possible uses must be taken into account.

Sugar alcohol: xylitol and erythritol

Xylitol is often referred to as birch sugar. But this sugar substitute is often made from agricultural scraps such as corn on the cob. So when buying, you should pay close attention to the source of the sweetener. Xylitol has many advantages: it is less sweet than stevia, but almost as sweet as sugar. It has forty percent fewer calories than granulated sugar.

Due to its nature, it can be used in almost the same way as refined sugar and, like stevia, has been shown to have a strong anti-cariogenic effect. Therefore, birch sugar is often used in dental care chewing gum. However, excessive use of xylitol can also lead to digestive problems. Erythritol is another, so far quite unknown sugar alcohol. Although it has no calories, it also has very little sweetening power. Erythritol is seventy percent less sweet than table sugar and can therefore only replace it or even stevia with great difficulty.

Thaumatin

Thaumatin is a natural protein of the African katemfe fruit and so far hardly known, although it is often used as a sweetener in food production. Thaumatin surpasses crystalline sugar by 2000-3000 times in sweetening power and is therefore still a thousand times sweeter than stevia. Unfortunately, however, it is not suitable for cooking or baking and because of the costly extraction it can hardly be used by private households.

Chemical alternatives

Some chemicals are also used to replace sugar and stevia, including aspartame and neohesperidin. Both substances are used by industry as sweeteners because, like stevia, they are sweeter than conventional sugar: aspartame has 200 times more sweetening power, neohesperidin is even 400-600 times as sweet as sugar lumps. However, both remedies are only partially suitable for private households: While the health effects of aspartame are highly controversial, neohesperidin has hardly been researched in this regard. Stevia is a safer alternative here.

Stevia: A sugar substitute with many benefits

Stevia: A sugar substitute with many benefits

As you can see, the choices of sweeteners are numerous, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Stevia is distinguished from other sweeteners by its high sweetening power, its low calorie content and its tooth-friendly effect. If you want to reduce your consumption of table sugar, stevia is a good place to start. Because the sugar substitute is available in many forms, easy to process and is not only suitable for diabetics, but also for a vegan and low-calorie diet.

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