Stevia isn’t just a sweet substitute for those on a sugar-free or low-calorie diet. The plant-based sweetener helps control blood sugar, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications—above and beyond what you’d expect from cutting back on sugar. The way stevia works could make it an ally in the fight against diabetes. (For other blood sugar tamers, see 10 of the best herbs and supplements for diabetes.)
Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium monitored mice for two weeks while giving them stevia in their drinking water. In particular, the researchers were interested in a protein called TRPM5 that is stimulated by stevia: TRPM5 is essential for taste perception, but it’s also involved in the release of insulin—the hormone that helps control blood sugar.
Sure enough, when the mice got stevia, TRPM5 activity increased and the mice produced more insulin. Study author Rudi Vennekens, a biochemist, said in ScienceDaily that the mice actually gained “protection against diabetes.” (Don’t miss this go-to guide on superfoods for diabetics.)
To test the findings, Vennekens and colleagues gave the sweetener to mice who lack the protein. “Stevia did not have this protective effect on mice without TRPM5,” said Vennekens. “This indicates that the protection is due to the TRPM5 stimulation.”
The next step for researchers is figuring out whether the sweetener has the same effect in humans. While the results will be a few years coming, if you decide you want to give the sweetener a try, make sure you’re getting the real thing. “Many commercial stevia products are highly purified extracts and are not always as healthy as some of their ‘natural’ labels would lead you to believe,” writes nutritionist Jo Lewin in BBC Good Food. “Like with other sugar alternatives, it is the extraction and processing methods that change the properties of the whole leaf into something quite different.”
Lewin also warns that the intensely sweet additives can drive up your desire for sweet-tasting foods and drinks—so use caution. “The long term effects of sweeteners are still unknown,” she says, “and there is a clear need for further experimentation with respect to the metabolic processes involved.”
However, Lewin does agree that pure stevia is a healthier choice than sugar because it doesn’t add calories, raise blood sugar or insulin levels, or cause cavities. And if it helps your body tame blood sugar, even better. (Here are 21 science-backed ways to prevent diabetes.)