Over the past few decades, a whole array of artificial sweeteners has been introduced to the general public. As we slowly became more and more aware of the dangers of sugar to our health, we were glad to be presented with any sort of alternative we could lay our hands on. But in recent years, it’s been slowly seeping in that we probably all jumped on the bandwagon too soon…
You don’t fool us anymore
Just do a quick web search, and you will find countless reports of people suffering from mild to severe unwanted side effects from ingesting Splenda (based on sucralose, a mixture of sugar and chlorine!), aspartame, and other artificial sugar substitutes. Headaches and migraines, stomach aches, rashes, dizziness, anxiety attacks…the list just goes on and on.
It may have taken us a while, but we’re finally starting to turn to natural alternatives. More and more people are relying on sugar free, gluten free and even dairy free living–some consciously, some out of sheer necessity. In this respect, one term seems to pop up on a regular basis: Stevia. But what is this new miracle sweetener that so many are raving about?
Discovery and beneficial qualities
Well, in fact it’s not really new at all. At the turn of the 20th century, a Swiss botanist called Moses Bertoni discovered that the Guarani–a group of indigenous peoples of Paraguay–were using dried leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant in order to sweeten their infamous “mate,” a type of herbal tea. Also called “sweet leaf” or “honey leaf,” stevia rebaudiana is a perennial shrub with leaves up to 40 times sweeter than plain table sugar. But, that was not the only thing Bertoni found out; he noticed that the natives were using stevia to relieve high blood pressure and to treat cuts and other skin conditions.
Because it has a glycemic index of zero, stevia in all its forms is ideal for diabetics. In contrast to many of the artificial sugar substitutes, it does not induce cravings by tricking your body into thinking that eating sweetened foods is okay. On the contrary, stevia was found to suppress cravings. The sweet leaf keeps candidiasis at bay, and stevia sweetened chewing gum prevents the formation of bacteria on your teeth that cause dental plaque and cavities. The all-natural sweetener is also heat stable up to 392°F, which makes it ideal for most cooking and baking. It does not ferment like sugar though, so you’ll need to combine your stevia with some baking soda if you plan on making cakes.
Today, stevia is sold in many forms: as pure stevioside extract of course, but also as a liquid extract, in pellet form, in small refined packets and blends, and as dried leaves to sweeten your tea or coffee. The plant is propagated through the use of cuttings rather than seeds, because of its low germination rate, especially in mild climates.
An old-fashioned book burning
So why is it, you say, that this little miracle plant has been kept in the dark for so many years? Many believe that the sugar lobby quietly struck a deal with the FDA in order to keep stevia off the market, thus securing profits. After all, they wouldn’t want an all-natural sugar substitute to come out that doesn’t carry any side effects, would they?
In 1998, the FDA went as far as to order Oscar Rodes, founder of Stevita Co. Inc, to destroy not only his stevia extract but also the cookbooks he was selling that promoted the use of stevia in recipes. When the media caught wind of the story, the FDA was forced to back down and today, Stevita has become one of the biggest distributors of refined stevia in the United States.
Towards a brighter future
Some of the FDA’s initial studies claimed that stevia stimulates the growth of carcinogenic cells in rats and that the sweetener causes impotence. What most people don’t know is that these studies were founded by producers of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Many independent studies have refuted the negative claims, and proven stevia to be completely safe for everyday consumption.
In 2008, after a long battle, the FDA finally granted GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status to rebaudioside A, one of the main glycosides (sweet substances) in stevia. It’s plausible that the Coca Cola Company and Pepsico had their say in getting stevia green-lit, as both companies started developing a line of products containing rebaudioside A immediately after the FDA’s approval.
In April of 2010, EFSA (The European Food Safety Authority) also approved rebaudioside A as a sweetener. However, it may still take a while for manufacturers to perfect their methods and finish their products. The first of these are expected to hit the shelves in Europe in 2012.
Still not convinced of stevia’s safety? After all the little green plant has gone through, we don’t blame you. But consider this: South American natives have been using the honey leaf safely for generations. On top of that, since its introduction in Japan in the 1970’s, stevia is currently the number one sweetener there, with a market share of over 40 percent. All of this occurred without any customer complaints, or reports of illness. Who says life can’t be sweet and healthy at the same time?
3. Van der Snoek, Dick and Ineke. Stevia : het z …. alternatief. Ankh-Hermes, cop. 2008
4. May, James A. The Miracle Of Stevia: Discover the Healing Power of Nature’s Herbal Sweetener. Kensington, 2003.
5. Gates, Donna. The Stevia Story: A tale of incredible sweetness & intrigue. B.E.D. Publications, 2000.
About the author: Jo is a twenty-something health enthusiast who–like many others–discovered stevia and hasn’t looked back since. He founded sugarfreestevia.net last year in order to promote the use of stevia to the outside world, by providing quality information about the plant and its history, the sweet leaf as a sweetener, tips on how to grow stevia yourself, recipes and much more. He currently resides in Belgium with his family.