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posted: 5/15/2013 6:00 AM

Substituting stevia can make a big calorie difference

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Q. Do stevia sweeteners offer any special advantage because they are natural?

A. Keep in mind that "natural" on food labels has no legal definition; in fact, Stevia sweeteners are highly purified compounds technically called steviol glycosides, produced as extracts of the stevia plant. Research does not identify these products as any more beneficial to health than other zero-calorie sweeteners.

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Stevia sweeteners are available under several different brand names and are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. So in the small amounts needed to sweeten foods, they are essentially calorie-free. Like other calorie-free sweeteners, Stevia sweeteners do not raise blood sugars and are safe for people with diabetes.

Substituting sweeteners like this for a single teaspoon of sugar only saves 16 calories, but in foods or drinks in which it replaces larger amounts of sugar, stevia and other zero-calorie sweeteners can make a significant calorie difference over time.

Of course, when added to soft drinks to replace some sugar or desserts, those foods still contain calories from the other ingredients; "reduced-calorie" foods are not "zero-calorie."

Stevia sweeteners are one of many options for adding sweetness without calories. Yet even though some refer to stevia as "natural," adding it (or any other zero-calorie sweetener) to a food or drink with no nutritional value does not suddenly turn it into "health food."

Q. Do vegetables help reduce risk of breast cancer?

A. Eating more vegetables (and fruits) may work in several ways as part of an overall healthy eating pattern and lifestyle to reduce breast cancer risk. Excess body fat does increase risk for postmenopausal breast cancer, so substituting low-calorie vegetables and fruits for foods high in calories can help because research strongly supports this as a key step in weight management.

A recent analysis conducted as part of the AICR/WCRF Continuous Update Project reported that higher vegetable and fruit consumption is linked with a small reduction in breast cancer risk. Another analysis showed a link between high blood levels of carotenoids and decreased breast cancer risk. High blood carotenoids are a marker of people consuming more vegetables and fruits, but could also reflect more use of nutrient-rich deep orange and dark green leafy vegetables.

These carotenoids (including beta-carotene and several others) may offer both antioxidant protection and direct interference with cancer development. Some cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and kale, are rich in carotenoids as well as compounds called glucosinolates that may reduce cancer risk.

In an analysis of 13 population studies, women who consumed the most cruciferous vegetables had a 15 percent lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who ate the least. However, the researchers emphasize that no firm conclusions can be drawn yet about cruciferous vegetables and breast cancer risk. As you look for steps you can take to reduce your risk of postmenopausal breast cancer, by far the strongest effects seem to come from reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity and minimizing alcohol consumption.

For all these reasons, eating more vegetables does make sense as one part of an overall lifestyle to reduce breast cancer risk and promote overall health.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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