Written by Danielle Minnebo
What exactly is stevia?
Stevia Rebaudiana is a plant that is part of the Chrysanthemum family, from the same family as sunflowers and daisies. When we compare the sweetness of stevia to sugar it is up to 200 times sweeter, that’s very sweet! It originates from South America and has had a long history of use there as a natural sweetener. Traditionally the green leaves of the stevia plant were ground up with Yerba Mate tea and made into a hot drink. One of the reasons stevia has become so popular over the years is that it virtually contains no calories and doesn’t cause your blood sugar levels to rise like sugar does. While all of these things sound good there are two issues I have with using stevia.
Firstly, let’s think about the effect of stevia on our blood sugar levels. Stevia has a sweet taste and normally when we taste something sweet it correlates with a release of glucose into the blood stream, in turn our body responds by releasing insulin, which helps signal to the cells to take up the glucose in the blood, thereby lowering it again to a healthy level. But what happens when we taste something sweet and there is no release of glucose into the blood stream? Our body still responds by releasing insulin, even though there is no glucose being released into the blood. The cells will take up what little glucose is already in the blood, which causes your blood sugar levels to lower too much, causing hypoglycaemia. In response to this our body quickly releases adrenalin (stress hormone), cortisol (stress hormone) and glucagon, to mobilize glucose from other sources, such as the liver, to help restore blood glucose levels. Not only does this cause blood sugar disregulation but it also causes a significant amount of stress to the body. If we add this stress to the long list of other stressors we all so commonly experience, such as lack of sleep, over training and work stress, we really aren’t doing our bodies any favors by consuming stevia.
The second reason I’m not a fan of stevia, is that it is such a refined and highly processed sweetener that is far removed from its leafy green origins. The stevia you buy in your local health food store is a highly purified extract, where the sweet component of stevia, steviol glycosides, are isolated and removed. I’d much rather add a teaspoon of raw unprocessed honey to my tea than stevia drops!
As a sweetener stevia would not be the first thing I would recommend. While stevia may help increase insulin sensitivity, there are many other nutrients and herbs that help increase insulin sensitivity without causing blood sugar disregulation and unnecessary stress on the system. If you do insist on using stevia than use the unprocessed form of stevia, either the whole leaf or the green dried and powdered stevia leaf. And make sure to use it how it was traditionally used, in small amounts to sweeten teas, and not added in every smoothie/dessert/treat you make.