Move over, sugar cane. There's another plant in town that can sweeten foods and beverages naturally. But this one doesn't add any calories. Even better, it may help manage blood glucose levels. It's called Stevia rebaudiana, or stevia for short.
The leaves of the stevia plant contain very sweet compounds called steviol glycosides. These compounds, about 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, are extracted and purified. Then they can be used as sugar substitutes.
People in South America, where the plant comes from, have been using stevia for many years. It's widely used in Japan, too. In 2008, the FDA approved it as a food additive.
Since then, stevia has started to appear in many foods. It's in products from candy and chewing gum to yogurt and desserts. There are tabletop versions that you can add to coffee or tea, just like sugar. You can use stevia instead of sugar when you bake, too.
For people with metabolic syndrome, stevia has two potential benefits:
Stevia may help you manage your weight. Stevia is calorie-free. Sugar is not. If you use products that contain stevia in place of sugar, it can help you eat fewer calories.
Stevia may keep your blood glucose level more stable. A study in the journal Appetite reported on people who had a prelunch snack sweetened with stevia, aspartame (known by the brand names Equal and NutraSweet), or sugar. Researchers tested the participants' blood after their snack and again after lunch. People whose snack contained stevia had the lowest blood glucose levels. High blood glucose after meals may raise the risk for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes; so, the study suggests switching to stevia might reduce the risk for these conditions.
To find sweeteners or foods that contain stevia, check ingredient labels. Look for stevia or two of the sweet stevia extracts: stevioside or rebaudioside A (also called reb-A or rebiana). Stevia is also sold or listed under many brand names at your local grocery store. These include OnlySweet, PureVia, Steviva, SweetLeaf, and Truvia.