Stevia extract is a sugar-free, plant-based sweetener. It is used in place of sugar and artificial sweeteners and is promoted as a healthy sugar substitute. Stevia has a long history of use in its native range in South America and is becoming increasingly popular in the modern, western diet.
Stevia extract is derived from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, a native to Paraguay and Brazil and a member of the Asteraceae family. Traditional cultures have used the crushed and boiled leaves of the stevia plant to sweeten their mate tea. The stevia plant used as a sweetener grows wild in Paraguay and Brazil and is in cultivation in its native range and in other countries such as Japan, China, Mexico, and parts of the United States. Stevia rebaudiana is the only member of the Asteraceae family that has the compounds that make the leaves sweet.
Stevia extract, in its natural state, is said to be 10 to 15 times sweeter than regular sugar. The fresh leaves or a green powder made from the ground leaves is stevia in its natural form. Refined stevia powder is white in color. When refined, stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. The intense sweet flavor of pure stevia extract is often diluted to make it more usable as a sweetener.
Stevia also is calorie free. The sweet flavor in stevia extract comes from the molecule stevioside. Stevioside is a glycoside that is present in the leaves of the plant. When consumed, the stevioside passes through the body without being altered.
Stevia can be used to replace regular sugar and artificial sweeteners in baking, desserts, and other culinary dishes. People who want to avoid calories or sugar for health reasons often use stevia as an alternative sweetener. Stevia is showing up more and more next to the sugar at coffee shops, in health food products, and at health food stores as well.
Diabetics often use stevia extract because, as a sweetener, it does not raise the blood sugar. Though stevia is often considered a suitable alternative sweetener for diabetics, conclusive studies on the safety of the substance have not yet been performed. People with a medical condition should consult a physician before using stevia.
Calorie-free and natural do not automatically mean safe. Unrefined stevia has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a dietary supplement, but refined forms as a sweetener are not yet approved as a food additive. Still, stevia is widely used in the United States, Europe, and Japan as a natural, alternative, calorie-free sweetener.