Mankind loves experimenting with new things and never gets tired of exploring various alternatives to consuming sugary foods and beverages. One question about alternatives to sugar and pop comes the answer-artificial sweeteners which have been time and again scrutinized and defamed for their side effects. The latest sweetener to hit the limelight is stevia, an all-natural alternative to artificial sweeteners. Banned by countries at one junction, stevia is now approved by most of the countries not because its advantages have been solid enough but only because it’s disadvantages could not be proved with rock-solid evidence.
A Natural Herb
Stevia’s history dates back to ages though it has become popular as a natural sugar substitute quite recently. Tropical climates are best-suited for stevia, a herb belonging to the chrysanthemum family and grown wild as a short shrub across Paraguay and Brazil. We discuss about stevia’s advantages and disadvantages, but Paraguayans have been using stevia as a food sweetener for centuries and so have other countries such as Brazil, Korea, South America, Japan and China whose history is not as ancient as Paraguay’s but still good enough. It is an easy-to-grow shrub that can be cultivated even in your backyard but there’s a huge difference between the stevia you grow at home and the one you buy at the grocery store.
Stevia is said to be thirty times sweeter than sugar with no effects on blood sugar meaning diabetes patients can consume stevia without any hesitation. Then why aren’t doctors prescribing the use of stevia and if not, why aren’t patients getting it from stores themselves? This is a big question and reconfirms the point that however non-synthetic stevia might be, it is still some kind of an artificial sweetener which leaves individuals perplexed. Get more information about artificial sweeteners and the plethora of news surrounding its use from the website www.firsteatright.com.
A non-nutritive sweetener, stevia almost contains zero calories. Despite all such benefits, the FDA banned stevia in 1991 due to studies and research supporting the fact that the sweetener might cause cancer. But, after-studies falsified this claim and in the year 1995 the FDA allowed stevia to be brought back but this time as a food supplement rather than an artificial sweetener. Finally, in the year 2008 the FDA gave a green signal to use stevia in food production and all mainstream food consumption sectors.
In India too, stevia was banned in the year 2011 but the ban was withdrawn in 2015 and until now the permission to use stevia remains unaltered.
There is a list of possible benefits listed but the evidences supporting it are still inconclusive leaving the public in a dilemma.
A Matter of Concern
Stevia is approved to be equally safe as artificial sweeteners, maybe even more safer. But a review done by top-notch researchers spurred up a damaging side effect that stevia could cause cancer. Certain test tube and animal studies showed that stevioside caused genetic mutations, chromosome damage and DNA breakage. No studies exist that prove these compounds to cause cancer in animals, but these changes can presumably contribute to malignancy. During those initial days, there were concerns raised that stevia could reduce fertility or aggravate diabetes. All these doubts are now put to rest due to some well-proven study results that prove otherwise. In fact, one study showed this non-nutritive sweetener to improve glucose tolerance while some other showed that stevia might induce pancreas to release insulin and hence, might be a potential cure for treating type 2 diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners were banned in Japan more than 40 years ago and the Japanese switched over to stevia to sweeten their foods. Since then, Japan has invested time and money in researching on stevia. They have conducted more than 40,000 clinical studies and concluded it to be safe for human use. Apart from this, there are not many long-term studies on stevia’s use and effects.
All said and done, stevia’s sweetness, close-to-zero calories and natural origin makes it a popular sugar substitute in a larger picture. The fact still remains that there are sparse long-term studies available on the plant extract but there exists the possibility that huge quantities of stevia can prove detrimental to health. At this junction, it is also not harmful to say that stevia might be the best plant-based substitute available till date, when consumed in moderate quantities.
Mammoth food companies such as Pepsi and Coca cola plan to use stevia as their sweetening agent in the forthcoming years but surprisingly there is not a single food that is totally stevia-based existing globally until now. Maybe, sometime later, you might find your bottled drinks, sweets, lassi or even yogurts that contain stevia on top of the ingredients list in your supermarkets and online shopping stores.
But not all individuals have the independence to use stevia in their life. Some people are at an increased risk of suffering from side effects due to daily use of stevia as this sweetener can lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels and act as a diuretic. People on certain medications must also refrain from using stevia or discuss with their doctor before choosing it for sweetening their lives! In general, individuals with liver conditions, kidney conditions, heart conditions, blood pressure conditions and using medications for all these conditions, those using steroids, hormone regulating medicines and cancer medications must discuss with their physician before going about using stevia.
Despite stevia’s advantages, disadvantages and side-effects, our common sense gives us the best prediction that it is always safe and better to stay away from any form of sweetener despite your diabetes conditions, urge to lose weight or blood pressure levels. Eat natural produce, home-cooked food, sparsely use synthetic food substances and stick to your healthy eating habits to stay fit. It doesn’t mind if you must skip added sugars often. Be happy that you were able to relish your mithais, sweetened beverages and kheers until now. Look forward to maintaining your health with the right kind of foods and nutrients.
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Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.