Hidden Health Treasures of Stevia

(By Mujahid Ali*, Dr. Anjum Murtaza**, Dr. Shahid Mahmood **)

(*Horticulture UOS; **Food Science and Nutrition UOS)

Horticulture industry encompasses a broad range of crops having fruits, vegetables, flowers, ornamental plants, mushroom and medicinal plants. Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a very valuable plant. It is an alternate of sugarcane and sugar-beet. Stevia is the name given to a green leafy herbal plant. It is native to South America and has been used for hundreds of years because of its extremely sweet leaves. It’s a few expensive cultivars are grown in Paraguay and Brazil. Stevia glycosides, mainly sativoside and rebaudioside are the active compounds responsible for its sweetness. Stevia has received its recent fame as being an artificial sweetener that is more than 40 times sweeter than sugar but does not affect blood sugar levels. It also does not have side effects on the body while conventional sugars and is useful especially for diabetics. In Italy, it was discovered by M.S. Bertoni in late 1800. It was known commonly as a sweet herb. Leaf of stevia have thirty to forty times sweeter than common sugar and is also slightly bitter to taste. Stevia extracts are 200 times sweeter than sugar and comparatively less bitter to green leaf stevia. It is among aromatic medicinal plants. Various countries like Brazil, Japan, United States, Canada etc. are using stevia as a sweetener.

Stevia is appreciated most for its sweet taste, which makes it capable of replacing sugar in a diet. Importantly, stevia also has a very low calorific count pushing it in the ‘no-calorie’ in the diet. There hasn’t been enough research done on the nutritional value of stevia. Currently, stevia leaf is not known to have any nutrients present in it other than carbohydrates and the earlier mentioned stevia glycosides. The health benefits of stevia include diabetes management, weight loss, skin care etc.

It has enormous potential to control diabetics. The most important or widely praised feature of stevia for human health concerns its ability to regulate blood sugar levels in the body. Opposed to sucrose, which is what normal table sugar consists of, stevia sweetens food in an analogous way as sugar, but it contains sativoside, which is a non-carbohydrate glycoside compound. As explained above, when sativoside breaks down, the glucose-containing particles are absorbed by the bacteria in the colon, rather than being absorbed into the bloodstream and affecting glucose levels in the body. This is an ideal substitute for common sugar for diabetics or people on carbohydrate-controlled diets because they can eat sweet foods without having to worry about diabetic complications.

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Stevia plays a key role in weight loss. Stevia is very low in calories and is anywhere from 40-300 times sweeter than common sugars, depending on the prevalence of certain extracts in the species variety. This means that people can eat foods like cakes, cookies, and candies made with stevia without worrying about gaining plenty of calories from sugars, so they won’t hurt their chances of successfully losing weight.

Stevia has chemistry to regulates blood pressure. Sativoside is a type of glycoside, but there are other glycosides in stevia that can relax the blood vessels, increase urination, and facilitate the elimination of sodium from the body. This means that less stress is put on the cardiovascular system and there can be a drop-in blood pressure, which protects heart health and prevents certain conditions such as atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes.

Stevia is a natural medicine for oral infections. It has been found to reduce bacterial infection in the mouth, making it a popular additive for toothpaste and mouthwashes. It also inhibits cavities and gingivitis. Now a day, skin care is a vital issue. people are more conscious of there skin. In a similar antibacterial function, as it plays in the mouth, stevia has been found to be a useful topical application for skin conditions such as eczema (red and itchy skin) also called as dermatitis. It inhibits the spread of bacteria and acts as a steroid in these situations, making it a popular option for many people who can’t get relief from these conditions.

Stevia contains antioxidants that make stevia an ideal dietary supplement for cancer prevention. Glycoside compounds in stevia help to eliminate free radicals in the body, thereby preventing them from mutating healthy cells into cancer cells. Antioxidants also aid in controlling premature aging, cognitive malfunction, and various other serious conditions like heart disease.

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There is another advice to patients that diabetics and low blood pressure patients have to monitor blood sugar levels and blood pressure, respectively, after consuming stevia. There have been cases of worsening conditions. It is highly recommended that you consult your doctor before adding this to your diet, especially if you suffer from either condition. Stevia also solves problem of indigestion as it decreases feelings of hunger.

People who are allergic to ragweed, marigolds, daisies and related plants may experience allergy symptoms when coming into contact with these. Also, some people have complained of bloating, cramping as well as occasional dizziness or headaches after eating stevia. These cases are rare, and stevia remains a safe and beneficial sweetener and plant additive for people around the world. But if you eat it in excess then you may gain body weight. There are various products like ice-cream, candies, tea, sports drinks and soft drinks etc. well known for stevia.

There should be precautions too. It is noteworthy to note that the highly refined varieties of stevia such as Trivia are recognized as unsafe for consumption by Food and Drug Administration. (FDA). Although the leaf and extract form of stevia is safe their effects on health are not quite known and more research is needed. However, research continues to support its use as a sweetener and as a food additive. As a substitute for sugar, we should also focus on its cultivation as people are more conscious than they were before. So, they are willing to pay more. We should create awareness about its importance in public so that they demand.

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