DISCOVERING AN ALL-NATURAL, no calorie sweetener was thrilling when I came across Stevia years ago. In comparison to the other sugar substitutes, it always seemed like the healthiest zero calorie option. Whether because of commercial reasons, or a lack of investment in advertisements paralleling Splenda’s whimsical ad campaign, it seemed to be slow in catching on. Now, green sweetener packets are finally popping up in the rainbow of blue, pink, and yellow on local coffee shop counters.
Stevia extracted from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant, is over one hundred times sweeter than sugar, contains zero calories, and now researchers are telling us that it may actually decrease the risk of progression to diabetes. This is not only through the obvious (by substituting sugar) but the less so – by stimulating a protein on cells that influences taste perception and insulin release.
According to researchers this protein forms an ion channel (called TRPM5), found on taste buds and in the pancreas from through which electrical charges flow. The active components of stevia extract, stevioside and steviol, stimulate this ion channel to execute the taste perception of sweet, bitter, and umami (water taste). This channel, when stimulated, may also be responsible for more insulin release from the pancreas which can lower post-meal glucose levels in those with low insulin sensitivity and a higher predisposition to diabetes.
Although it is premature to say Stevia may be part of the treatment for those with high blood sugar, it may have more benefit than just making your coffee taste decent.