Last updated March 15, 2019 by Lisa Richards, CNC   Reviewed by Zia Sherrell, MPH.

Stevia: A Natural Herbal Sweetener

Stevia is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener

Humanity has a love affair with sweet foods and has been eating them for centuries. It’s estimated that sugarcane was initially domesticated as long ago as 8000 BCE.

Humans are hard-wired to consume calorific foods. Food used to be much scarcer and more difficult to find than today; therefore our brains evolved to discern sugar, honey and fruit as highly satiating, and advantageous over other available foods. (1)

Even if you don’t think so, your brain is still wired for feast or famine and to enjoy sweet, sugary treats. The Western addiction to sugar has now reached epidemic levels, and sugar is often the main ingredient in a large proportion of food eaten, with the average American eating 80 grams – or 20 teaspoons of sugar every day. (2)

Refined sugar is not natural and is bad news for your health. It is proven that sugar consumption is linked to cardiovascular disease, mental disorders, diabetes, and candida overgrowth. (3, 4, 5, 6)

Considering the negative consequences associated with sugar intake, a healthier alternative is needed. Thankfully there are natural, low-carb sweeteners that are now widely available.

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Here are a few good reasons why you should make Stevia a part of your Candida diet plan.

  • Low Glycemic Index
  • Zero calorie
  • 100% natural herbal sweetener
  • Stevia does not have unpleasant long-term side effects like Aspartame or other artificial sweeteners

What is Stevia?

What do sunflowers, lettuce, thistles, and stevia have in common? They all belong to the daisy or Compositae family which, with a massive 32, 913 species, is the second largest plant family. The Stevia genus alone consists of over 240 species. (7)

The leaves of this small, sub-tropical, perennial plant are an incredible 30 times sweeter than sugar, and yet they don’t contain any calories. The purified extract of the stevia plant is over 300 times sweeter than sugar, meaning that this relative of the marigold is an ideal sugar replacement. (8)

The 90 different species of Stevia Rebaudiana are the sweetest of the genus and therefore are most commonly cultivated to make edible products.

Stevia is growing in popularity as a natural and calorie-free sweetener, making it one of the most significant nutritional discoveries of recent times. It’s an ideal choice for those who want to avoid sugar but indulge their sweet tooth.

History of use

Stevia is native to Paraguay where, in the wild, it grows near water sources such as rivers and lakes. The Guarani natives have consumed this herb, known to them as Kaa he-he, meaning sweet herb, for around 1500 years.

These ancient Paraguayans chewed the leaves or added them into mate, a drink similar to tea which is still served with stevia to this day. Not only did they use this wonderful plant for sweetening their food and drinks, but they found it was useful for healing wounds, softening the skin, smoothing wrinkles, and aiding their digestion. (9)

A Swiss naturalist named Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni proclaimed his ‘discovery’ of this new species in 1887, and named the plant Stevia Rebaudiana after the chemist Rebaudi who identified one of the active compounds of stevia.

In 1931, French chemists isolated the extract stevioside, the second of the active compounds, which together with rebaudioside give stevia its super-sweet taste.

Japan was the first country to cultivate this herb on a large scale after the government began to regulate the use of chemical additions to the food supply. Stevia was a much safer choice than either saccharin or aspartame.

The Japanese began to add stevia to a wide range of food products including drinks, bread, candy, and even vegetables. By 1994, almost half of the sweet products consumed in Japan were made with stevia! It was not long before the rest of the world followed suit. (10)

The Three Types of Stevia

With the growing popularity of stevia, it is essential to understand the different kinds that are available on the market.

The safety of high-purity stevia glycosides for food use has been confirmed by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, stevia leaves and less refined stevia extracts are not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and are not approved for food use. This is possibly due to unease over counterfeit stevia and stevia products that also contain undesirable ingredients. (11)

There are three essential varieties of Stevia:

  1. Green leaf stevia
    As the name suggests, this stevia remains in crude leaf form, with no processing other than drying and, in some cases, grinding into a powder.  This original form of stevia is the type that has been used for both sweetening and medicinal purposes in South America for hundreds of years. The leaves are around 30 times sweeter than sugar and contain both rebaudioside and stevioside in differing concentrations, depending on the species of the plant.
  2. Stevia extracts
    Following centuries of stevia use in its pure, leaf form, the advent of modern technology allowed the extraction of the two glycosides from the leaves. Purified stevia extract is a more processed option than the crude leaves. In the U.S. this is usually rebaudioside A. In 2008, the FDA stated that for stevia extracts for food use, the minimum allowable content of rebaudioside A was 95%, without containing any other form of glycosides.
  3. Altered stevia blends
    This last option is the sweetest but least healthy option of the three. Some altered stevia blends are 400 times sweeter than pure sugar. These blends are a highly processed version of the original plant, and in some cases, they contain just 1% rebaudioside A. (12) Chemical solvents such as acetonitrile are used to process the raw SteviaRebaudianaplant into these altered stevia blends. These solvents are bad news; acetonitrile is toxic to the central nervous system. Some mixes also contain erythritol, dextrose, or other ingredients. (13)

These three types of stevia differ significantly, and certainly aren’t created equal. There is a world of difference between utilizing crude or extracted stevia, and the chemically altered stevia blends.  Stevia confers health benefits but is unlikely to do so in amounts of less than 1%, blended with toxic chemicals.

Organic versus non-organic

In order to be marketed as organic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules and regulations that must be followed. If not, then the product can only be marketed as non-organic. (14)

Both classes of stevia are naturally gluten-free and have no glycemic impact.

Organic stevia products

Strict standards must be complied with, in all aspects of the stevia cultivation. The farm that cultivates the stevia must have received prior certification as organic and undergo rigorous inspections on an ongoing basis. Only permitted organic fertilizers and insecticides can be used on the plants.

Organic versions can contain fillers, and not all organic brands consist of pure stevia. It is vital to read the label to see what other ingredients are used. Where possible, choose one that contains 100% pure stevia.

Blue agave inulin is a derivative of fiber that comes from the blue agave plant. There are several brands of organic stevia that use this ingredient as a filler. It can be organic and non-GMO, but it’s still a filler and not as desirable as pure stevia.

Non-organic stevia products

This type of stevia product is not tightly regulated which means it could contain pesticides, herbicides, and other undesirable chemicals. GMO cultivars of stevia do not exist, but these non-organic stevia products can contain other ingredients, such as corn, that are GMO. The stevia can be blended with other sweeteners such as erythritol or fillers and additives.

Be Sure To Read The Label

Not all stevia products are created equal, and you must take the time to read the label to ensure that you are getting the product that you want. Common fillers and additives used in stevia products are:

  • Maltodextrin is a filler that is made from corn, rice or potatoes. It prevents clumping and has a sweet taste. It contains calories and can be GMO. Avoid this ingredient when you buy stevia.
  • Dextrose is another filler that can be made from corn, or from fruit or honey. It is similar to sugar and is not suitable if you are trying to adhere to a sugar-free regimen. Because it can be corn-based, it can be GMO. You should also avoid this ingredient when you buy stevia.
  • Inulin is one of the safer additives of vegetable origin, and also a good prebiotic. If you choose a stevia brand that contains inulin, that’s usually a good choice.
  • Erythritol is a sugar alcohol made from corn, and can sometimes be GMO. It has very few calories and is very sweet. It’s a good option for the Candida diet, but can occasionally cause stomach upset in some people.
  • Xylitol is a sugar alcohol is made from birch trees. It’s one of the safest additives and has been proven to be beneficial to our oral health; hence its frequent use in chewing gum. It’s a good choice for the Candida diet but, as with other sugar alcohols, it can cause occasional digestive issues. (15)

To avoid any issues with additives and fillers, purchase 100% pure stevia extract. This can be challenging to find, but has the best flavor and is the least likely to cause any digestive issues.

6 Health Benefits of Stevia

Research has shown that stevia consumption confers a range of health benefits. In its pure form, it doesn’t have the negative health consequences associated with either sugar or with other sweeteners.

The health benefits of stevia are:

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  1. Stevia doesn’t feed a bacterial or fungal overgrowth in the intestines. Conditions such as Candida and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) can be caused or worsened by high sugar consumption. If you suffer from these conditions, doctors recommend a diet that is low in carbohydrates. (16)
  2. Stevia acts as an anti-hyperglycemic agent. In other words, it protects against high blood sugar and lowers glucose levels in both healthy and diabetic patients. Society is suffering from an increased incidence of obesity and type-2 diabetes which is linked to sugar intake. (17) Compared to other sweeteners such as aspartame and sucrose, stevia can stabilize blood sugar and lower insulin levels. It also improves the metabolism of glucose and the assimilation of fat and bile acid which are factors that can aid the control of weight. (18, 19)
  3. Stevia is an antimicrobial and has been shown to kill the microbes that can cause dental caries. (20)
  4. Stevia is an antioxidant, that combats the oxidative stress caused by free radical damage. It contains a powerful combination of antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, flavonoids potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and folate which help your body to regulate and maintain its metabolic processes. (21)
  5. Stevia has anti-inflammatory & anti-tumor properties due to the chlorophylls and xanthophylls that it contains that can limit tumor cell growth and prevent inflammation. (22)
  6. Stevia promotes cardiovascular health in three different ways; strengthening blood vessels, reducing cholesterol and increased blood clotting factors (23). It is thought that stevioside (one of the active compounds in stevia) can assist in regulating blood pressure and heart rate.

18 Recipes That Use Stevia

Stevia is a versatile sweetener that you can use in all kinds of cooking. Here are some ideas for using stevia in your breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and drink recipes.

Breakfast recipes with stevia

Cinnamon Coconut Crisp
Bircher Muesli
Breakfast Muffins
Buckwheat Porridge

Lunch/Dinner recipes with Stevia

Curried Chicken Bowl
Asian Steak Kebabs
Satay Chicken Bowl
Thai Cucumber Salad
No-Sugar Candida Coleslaw

Snack recipes with stevia

Strawberry Muffins
Vanilla Cardamom Ice Cream
Cinnamon Pecan Crumb Cakes
Avocado Lime Tart
Hazelnut Butter Bars
Pumpkin Seed Energy Bars
Coconut Mint Ice Cream

Drink recipes with stevia

Coconut Smoothie
Almond Mint Smoothie

Is Stevia Safe?

Health and food safety organizations mostly generally regard stevia as safe, including the FDA. (24)

And of course, Stevia has been safely used worldwide for decades and in South America for centuries!

If it is consumed in reasonable amounts, stevia is a fantastic, natural and healthy alternative to sugar and other artificial sweeteners. Remember though to choose the purest form that you can find to avoid potential issues with additives.

Stevia vs. Artificial Sweeteners

It is now well established that too much sugar is bad for you, because of those additional “empty” calories that it adds to your diet and because of high blood pressure, inflammation and other negative consequences to your health.(25)

But what about the other non-sugar sweeteners that are available on the market as an alternative to stevia?

There are five artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. Your body will respond to these artificial sweeteners in a multitude of different and complex ways.

There is evidence that aspartame will raise your blood sugar just like regular sugar does. And there are also concerns that it may be carcinogenic. (26)

Animal studies show us that artificial sweeteners are addictive. Researchers have found that rats prefer saccharine over cocaine! (27)

With such wide availability of a natural sugar alternative, why would you choose an artificial sweetener over stevia?

The Stevia Difference

Stevia is sweeter than sugar with none of the calories or associated health problems. It’s a natural sweetener, unlike many alternative sweeteners on the market, and you can easily find it in your health food or grocery store.

Stevia means that you can enjoy the occasional sweet treat without the associated worries of poor digestion, Candida overgrowth, and other sugar-related health problems. If you are following a low-sugar eating plan like the anti-Candida diet, it is an excellent choice of sweetener.

Stevia is a safe and sweet alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners that also contains potent natural compounds that deliver multiple therapeutic benefits.

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