Among many nutritionists, added sugar is now the ultimate super villain. But America’s sweet tooth remains alive and well, causing many people to seek out sugar substitutes. One of the most popular, since its FDA approval in 2008, is stevia. Here we examine what stevia is, how it affects your body and how best to use it.

What Is Stevia?

Stevia sweetener derives from a small shrub native to South America that is now grown in many places; in fact, China is now the largest stevia exporter. It’s sold in many forms, which makes sorting out its merits and demerits a challenge.

Types of Stevia

Unprocessed stevia leaves can taste bittersweet and have a licorice flavor. Fresh stevia leaves are rare in stores, but dried, crushed leaves are sometimes used in tea, or ground into a green powder. Stevia leaves are 30 to 40 times sweeter than sugar.

In the 1970s, Japanese researchers discovered how to extract compounds—called steviol glycosides—that make the leaf sweet. The glycosides most commonly used in stevia sweeteners are stevioside and rebaudioside A (or reb A). Stevioside is roughly 140 times sweeter than sugar, while reb A is about 240 times sweeter. Reb A is also less bitter and has less of an aftertaste, but stevioside seems to be the compound that delivers most of stevia’s health benefits. The extracts are sold in two main forms: white powder and liquid drops.

Is It Good for You?

Our bodies don’t absorb stevia well, which is what makes it popular: The result is that it provides 0 calories and has a 0 rank on the glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin levels. This makes it a hit with diabetics, but some health practitioners recommend consuming stevia only in moderation. They contend that habitual stevia use can overwork the adrenal glands because the ultrasweet taste primes the body to process sugar by lowering blood sugar levels; then, when no sugar is delivered, the adrenal glands pump out adrenaline and cortisol to restore balance. To date, little to no research exists to test this theory.

Research has shown some positive benefits to stevia—such as normalizing blood pressure and reducing pancreatic cancer risk—but the studies primarily used high-dose stevia supplements containing stevioside, not sweetener extracts.

How to Use Stevia

Substitute stevia powder or drops for sugar in beverages, oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies and more. You can use stevia in place of sugar in baked goods, but it’s not a 1-to-1 swap, and it can be tricky to find the right amount, so it’s usually best to stick with established stevia recipes. Click here for Cocoa Brownies with stevia.