Photo: Stevia Sweetener

by Tracy Rohland

What do you do when you want something sweet but don’t want to suffer the ill effects of sugar or artificial sweeteners? Oftentimes, a diabetic’s biggest challenge is finding a safe and suitable sweetener to satisfy their sweet tooth. But this search for healthy sweeteners doesn’t apply to diabetics alone. With the rise in popularity of Atkins-type low-carb diets, diabetics are not the only people searching for great-tasting, low-calorie, natural sweeteners. November’s health tip takes a closer look at two such natural sweeteners.


Check Out Stevia


Stevia is an herb that comes from the Stevia plant, native to Paraguay. This natural sweetener, in its concentrated powder form, is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It is commonly sold as a powdered extract, a liquid concentrate, or as fresh or dried leaves. It varies in color from pure white to light-ish green. Although stevia has been used in South America for hundreds of years, it is relatively new to the U.S. market, but is rapidly being recognized as a natural, non-caloric alternative to artificial sweeteners. Studies have shown that stevia is especially beneficial to diabetics because it does not affect blood sugar levels. In fact, that same studies showed that stevia extract can actually increase glucose tolerance and improve blood sugar levels at the same time. While consumption of artificial sweeteners has been linked to various physical ailments, research shows that stevia has no known side effects and is perfectly safe for human consumption. In addition to being non-toxic, stevia has also been used for medicinal purposes. South American Indian tribes apply the herb externally to heal wounds and use it internally as a digestive aid. As a sweetener, stevia can be used in the same way pre-packaged sugar is used—to sweeten tea and other beverages. It can also be used in cooking and baking. However, since stevia is much sweeter than sugar and can leave a bitter aftertaste if used in excess, it should only be used in minute proportions for food preparations.


How About Xylitol?


Another natural sweetener that is quickly gaining recognition in the United States is xylitol. It has been broadly used as a sweetener for decades in European and Asian countries but is only commonly used in the United States as a sweetener for chewing gums, toothpastes, lozenges, mouthwashes, and other products associated with dental hygiene. Xylitol occurs naturally in fruits and certain plants. The version of xylitol most commonly sold for consumption is extracted from birch bark. As a white crystalline substance, xylitol looks and tastes just like sugar. However, the difference is found in its chemical makeup. Xylitol is not a sugar, but rather a 5-carbon sugar alcohol. It is classified as a carbohydrate, but due to its lack of a 6th carbon atom, it is slowly absorbed and only partly utilized in the body. This is good news for diabetics, since it does not require insulin to be metabolized. Because xylitol does not produce the same affect in the body as sugar, and contains 40% less calories than sugar, diabetics in several European countries have successfully used xylitol as a dietary sweetener. As with stevia, studies show that xylitol has no apparent side effects and is safe when consumed in amounts in excess of 90 grams per day. The only known side effect is diarrhea, which has only been shown to occur with over-consumption. Xylitol can be used the same way you would use sugar, adding to cereal, cinnamon toast, or beverages. It is measured out the same way as sugar, sweetening teaspoon for teaspoon.


Stevia and Xylitol: Not Just for Diabetics


While these sweeteners are especially beneficial to diabetics, anyone who needs or wants to restrict their sugar or carbohydrate intake can satisfy their sweet craving by using these natural sweeteners. Both stevia and xylitol can be found in any of the Down to Earth Natural Food Stores' wellness departments.

Footnotes: 
  1. Whitaker, Julian M.D. “A Natural Sweetener that’s Also Calorie-Free.” Health & Healing. December 1994 Vol. 4, No 12. HealthFree.com. October 2003. http://www.healthfree.com/Dr.JulianWhitakers.htm
  2. Sahelian, Ray M.D. & Gates, Donna. “Stay Healthy the Stevia Way.” Exerpted from The Stevia Cookbook. Avery Publishing, 1999. PracticalHippie.com. October 2003. http://www.practicalhippie.com/cache/stevia/stayhealthy.htm
  3. Richard, David. “Questions and Answers About Stevia.”. Excerpted from Stevia Rebaudiana: Nature’s Sweet Secret, Vital Health Publishing (August 1999. ) Healthy.net. October 2003. http://www.healthy.net/hwlibrarybooks/stevia/questions.asp
  4. Xylitol FAQs. Xylitol.org. October 2003. http://xylitol.org/
  5. “Xylitol-An Amazing Discovery for Health.” 2003 Copyright Xlear Inc. Xlearinc.com. October 2003. http://www.xlearinc.com/xylitol/