A Complete Guide to Artificial Sweeteners

by Jackie Wicks

Best Choice for Non-Caloric Sweeteners: Stevia

Stevia is tropical herb well-known for its intensely sweet leaves. Whereas the compounds which form the artificial sweeteners are man-made and never found in nature, the compounds which result in the sweet flavor of stevia are natural, and may even be beneficial.

The specific sweet compounds in stevia are diterpenes known as steviol glycosides. Terpenes are found in many plants and are often responsible for their colors or odors. Some types of terpenes include the carotenoids, which are tetraterpenes, and ursolic acid, a triterpene and one of the powerful compounds in holy basil. The diterpenes and other compounds in stevia have been found to be anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and to have antioxidant activity.

Another benefit of stevia is that it actually improves glucose tolerance! In one study, extracts of stevia were shown to significantly lower blood glucose levels through increased glucose tolerance. This has even more significance to diabetics, as the use of stevia could lead to increased insulin sensitivity. In fact, stevia is being researched as a potential treatment for type II diabetes.

Furthermore, stevia was demonstrated to also slow the development of insulin resistance in rats fed a high-fructose diet, making it potentially beneficial as a protective measure against diabetes.

When stevia is found packaged, usually only one steviol glycoside is present: rebaudioside A. Rebaudioside A is the sweetest of the compounds, and also the least bitter, so it is the best choice for isolation of sweetness, but that does not imply it carries all of the above benefits with it. Like all plants, stevia has a number of compounds which may work alone or together to benefit our health. All the above studies used aqueous infusions of stevia, the whole leaf, not just one glycoside. While there is certain to be some benefit rebaudioside A can claim on its own, the whole leaf will most likely have more benefits.

It can be challenging to find a stevia plant, but they are easy to raise, tolerant of abuse, and grow quite fast. You can pluck some leaves and crush them in your tea for the same sweet effect a packet of stevia powder will have, but with increased antioxidant activity. A good place to find a plant is a local gardening center, where they are usually located with the herbs. Stevia is a tropical plant, and better suited for indoor life in most locations.

If growing a plant is not for you, don’t fret. Even if packaged stevia doesn’t contain all of its benefits, it will still not have any of the toxic side-effects the artificial sweeteners have, which makes it the best bet for sweetening your drinks or food without adding calories.

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