For the last one hundred years an air of controversy has swirled around stevia sweetener – extracted from a small shrub native to the mountains of Paraguay and Brazil related to the chrysanthemum – and its use as a food additive, sweetener, and sugar substitute. However, in recent years, voluminous research and clinical trials, including a twenty year real life study in Japan, have tried to determine what stevia is, what effect it has on the human body, its benefits and possible detriments, and all of the studies have reached the same conclusion: Stevioside, a white crystalline substance extracted and purified from the leaves of the stevia plant, is the natural substance utilized to produce stevia sweetener, and is not only many times stronger than sugar, but has numerous medicinal benefits attributed to its use.
Best Stevia Sweetener
|The Best Stevia Sweetener
What you do want is pure stevia or stevia extract. That way you can be assured of the full benefit of the sweet taste with none of the drawbacks. There are lots of products on the market that add other sugar-like additives that pretty much defeat the purpose of a no-calorie, low-blood sugar impact sweetener in the first place! How do you spot it?… [Read More...]
The leaves of the stevia plant have been used in their natural form by the Guarani Indians of the Amambay Mountains in Paraguay since pre-Columbian times to sweeten their plant based teas. The leaves were also used as a digestive aid and in dressings for cuts and other skin conditions. When the Spanish Conquistadors returned to Spain from the New World in the 16th century, they introduced stevia to Europe, where it soon gained popularity as a sweetening alternative to sugar. The stevia plant, also known as kaahehe, sweet leaf, honey herb, and yerba dolce, was given its scientific name by a Spanish botanist, Dr. Peter Esteve, who died in 1566.
Meanwhile, the Indians native to the area introduced stevia to new settlers, and, by the 1800’s, the herb was commonly used throughout Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.
An Italian botanist explorer, Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, Director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion, Paraguay, was told of a “very strange plant” with sweet leaves by his Indian guides in 1887, during a botany expedition in the eastern forest regions of that country. As the expedition continued, however, despite his greatest efforts, he was unable to locate even one of these mystery plants. The reason became clear when, finally, twelve years later he was given a package of stevia plant fragments, found in the northeast mountainous region. (During his initial search, he had been looking in the wrong part of the country!) However, now he had concrete proof of his mystery plant’s existence. He announced his discovery of what he believed to be a new species in a Paraguayan botanical journal, naming the species Rebaudi, after a chemist who conducted the initial studies of the plant. Bertoni did not actually receive his first live specimen of a stevia plant until another four years had passed, in 1903. This acquisition allowed him to finally study the species extensively, and in his published results he declared stevia “so superior to sugar that there is no need to wait for the results of analyses and cultures to affirm its economic advantage.”
The first harvested crop of stevia for profit occurred in 1908, yielding a ton of dried leaves. After that, stevia plantations started popping up in Paraguay and beyond. Coincidentally, during the same period of time, massive deforestation for profit was taking place in the plant’s indigenous mountainous area, making thousands of stevia plants available for transplant to new locations. (This is the only means of cultivation in that stevia plants cannot be grown from seed.) From that point on, stevia usage and growth began its expansion beyond South America, while finally gaining a firm foothold as a commercially viable product.
A botanist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture initially brought stevia to North America in 1918. He had first tasted it during his exploration travels and was impressed by its incredible sweetness. Three years later, in 1921, stevia sweetener was formally introduced to the USDA by George S. Brady, who touted its characteristics as far sweeter than sugar, totally safe for use by diabetics, and highly endorsed its potential use in the marketplace. Needless to say, the sugar industry was not excited about the prospect of stevia usurping its position as the world’s most popular sweetener, and they had already been paying close attention to its progress for a number of years.
The next significant event in the history of stevia sweetener occurred in 1931, when two French chemists first extracted the pure white crystalline substance they called “Stevioside.”It was 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, was not toxic, and showed no ill effects when consumed.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Japan made the greatest strides in the popularization of stevia sweetener. In the 60’s, in an effort to eliminate chemical additives in food products in their country, the government had essentially banned the use of artificial sweeteners. Products containing stevia were introduced in the 70’s, and the Japanese soon discovered a natural substitute for sugar – stevia. They wasted no time in learning to raise the plants, and, in fact in 1988, they harvested 700 metric tons of stevia leaves. Since 1988, Japan has led the world in stevia sweetener consumption. At that time, stevia’s share of the sweetener market, including sugar, in packets and in food products, exceeded 41%, and has grown exponentially ever since.
As for other parts of the world, stevia sweetener is used extensively in Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Central America, China, Thailand, Israel, Korea, and the United States, and is currently undergoing its final certification processes for use in Canada.
Stevia’s popularity and usage in the United States would most likely be greater than it presently is, if it were not for the machinations of the Federal Drug Administration. Prior to 1986, Stevia had been -- and continued to be -- available in the United States, sold through health food and natural food stores. In that year, however, the FDA launched an investigation into its effects, eventually banning its sale because they considered it an “unapproved food additive”. Then, in a sudden move in 1991, the FDA stopped all importation of stevia leaves and products intended for any use, with the exception of a liquid form used in skin lotions; they declared the herb an illegal substance.
But, they didn’t stop there. They confiscated supplies, seized shipments, and banned imports from producing countries. During that period, they essentially attempted to eliminate stevia in any form, from the American market. At the same time, the American Herbal Products Association took up the cause of reversing the FDA’s decisions. They submitted extensive evidence and research reports relating studies proving the efficacy and safety of stevia use, and eventually asked the FDA to lift the restrictions on using stevia as a food additive in this country. One of their main arguments was that stevia was not a food additive but rather a food itself. Despite all arguments, however, the FDA still denied it GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status as a food additive.
Next, in 1995, the FDA was forced to reverse its position by the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, and had to again allow importation of stevia to be used – but only as a food supplement. It was still not to be used as a sweetener, as it was still deemed by the FDA to be an unsafe food additive. Many sources speculate that this decision was the final result of a compromise between the natural food industry and the sugar industry.
Finally, on December 17, 2008, stevia extract rebaudioside A was approved as “a natural and no calorie sweetener safe for use in food and beverages.” This opened the door for its use in packets as a sweetener. Today, other portions of the plant continue be used as dietary supplements.
Stevia is grown today in Paraguay, Brazil, Japan, and China. It has been successfully cultivated as far north as Southern Ontario and as far south as Southern California and Mexico, in North America. It is native to the mountainous regions of Paraguay and Brazil, where it has been used for centuries as a sweetener and for medicinal use. It is a short perennial shrub related to the chrysanthemum family, but from the over 200 species of stevia, only the stevia rebaudiana has leaves that are from 70 to 400 times sweeter than sugar if chewed or added to foods or liquids. Stevioside, a white crystalline powder, extracted from the leaves, is the substance that is used commercially in the production of stevia sweetener. In addition to the glycosides, which include Stevioside, the leaves contain protein, fibers, carbohydrates, phosphorus, iron, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, rutin, iron, zinc, vitamins C and A.
Is Stevia Sweetener Safe?
There has never been a single harmful effect reported despite stevia’s constant use Japan and Korea for the last 20+ years. All laboratory studies conducted since 1908 have reported the same findings. There have been no known reports of allergies related to stevia.
These are just a few of the reasons that stevia as a sweetener is so unique.
- - It has 0 calories.
- - It causes no elevation in blood sugar.
- - It causes no rise in blood pressure.
- - It is 0 on the glycemic index.
- - It provides no food for microorganisms such as yeast or bacteria, (thus its use to treat certain skin conditions).
- - It is non-toxic.
- - It is diabetic safe without the unpleasant side effects of many other artificial sweeteners - previously used in products intended for diabetics.
- - It has been found to actually inhibit the formation of cavities and plaque in the mouth.
- - It has no artificial ingredients.
- - It can be used in its natural state if desired.
- - Its sweetening effect is not changed by cooking or heating.
There are no disadvantages to stevia use other than that straight stevia extract can have a faintly bitter licorice after-taste. This problem has been overcome in some products by adding erythritol, an almost non-caloric sugar alcohol that counteracts the flavor. This addition does not have any adverse effects on the benefits of stevia use.
How the Body Processes Stevia Sweetener
The human digestive system is unable to retain the sweet glycosides in stevia, therefore is passed through the body without absorbing any calories. The glycosides break down to steviol in the gut, and passes out of the body in the urine.
Uses for Stviea Sweetener
- - Non-caloric sweetener many times sweeter than sugar that is totally safe for use by diabetics.
- - To treat obesity via weight reduction programs.
- - For its medicinal effect in skin lotions and products.
- - As a microorganism deterrent in skin dressings.
- - In baking and cooking, since the flavor is not altered by heat.
- - To sweeten beverages and desserts such as pies, yogurt, ice cream, breads, candy, and sauces.
- - For treating digestive ailments such as heartburn.
Stevia is a natural sweetener many times sweeter than sugar that is safe for all to use. It has no deleterious effects reported and may utilized by diabetics as an everyday part of their diets. It has no calories, is completely natural, and has no carbohydrates. In addition to its use as a sweetener, it also has numerous medicinal uses. It does not change in flavor when heated and is therefore perfect for cooking. It was used for hundreds of years in the mountains of Paraguay, and over the last hundred years has enjoyed ever widening popularity globally, and should continue this growth for years into the future.