Though it may not yet be swirling around in your coffee or tea, stevia has been used as a healing herb in South America for hundreds of years. Stevia is steeped in folklore and immersed in controversy.
Stevia is a member of the chrysanthemum family of plants. Originally, stevia grew wild in the highland regions of Northern Paraguay and Southern Brazil.
The Guarani Indians used it since ancient times. Spanish and Portuguese farmers cultivated it. The late 19th century doctor, Moises Santiago Bertoni, is the first Westerner to discover it and champion its use.
Its scientific name, Stevia rebuadiani Bertoni, was punned in honor of Rebuadi, a Paraguayan chemist, and Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni. Stevia grows in China, Japan and other Asian countries, South America, India, Europe and the United States.
What Makes Stevia Different from Other Sweeteners
In the past, natural products such as honey, sugar and maple syrup were our primary sweeteners; today, the sugar shelves are crowded with both natural and synthetic products.
Sweet ‘n Low ™ (saccharin), NutraSweet and Equal ™ (aspartame) and Splenda ™ (sucralose) are the industry giants.
Sweet ‘n Low ™ is labeled with warnings because it causes cancer in laboratory animals, while NutraSweet ™ has been under close scrutiny by consumers and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for years.
Drs. Richard and Rachel Heller, authors of The Carbohydrate Addicts Life Span Programassert, “The sweetness of sugar substitutes can falsely signal [to the] body that a ‘sweet meal’ is coming and excess insulin may be released so as to handle the expected onslaught of high caloric foods.
When no carbohydrates are forthcoming, the high levels of insulin that remain can easily lead to increases in cravings, weight-gain and associated health risks.” (Heller, R. 2000).
The Hellers contend that sugar substitutes are addictive. Another disturbing finding points to a carbohydrate, insulin and fat connection.
There are indications that excessive amounts of insulin in the bloodstream cause us to store more fat and crave starches, snack foods and sweets-this, of course, delivers a double whammy for weight-watchers.
Linda and Bill Bonvie, investigative reporters and vocal proponents of Stevia, point out that 75% of all non-drug related consumer complaints are concerning aspartame.
Dizziness, headaches, seizures and multiple sclerosis-like symptoms have all been reported, yet the FDA won’t take action against the aspartame manufacturer.
The relationship between consumers, the FDA, artificial sweeteners and the naturally sweet herb Stevia is intense.
Some people prefer Stevia to artificial sweeteners because it is natural. Stevia also has health benefits. It contains vitamins and minerals and it has been used to treat indigestion, tooth decay and skin disorders.
Stevia in Midst of Trade Wars
Stevia has enjoyed widespread use in Japan and a few other countries since the early 1970s.
In Japan, there is a multimillion-dollar market for stevia, with a 41% market share of the sweetener industry.
It is used in Japan in ice cream, candies, pickles and soft drinks (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1996).
Initially there was a great deal of enthusiasm for Stevia within tea manufacturing corporations in the United States.
Thomas J. Lipton ™; Celestial Seasonings™; Traditional Medicinals™ and smaller companies added Stevia to certain blends, which presumably sold well.
In the 1980s, representatives from an anonymous firm lodged a trade complaint with the FDA against the importation and use of Stevia (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1998).
Though Stevia had been health tested internationally for over 50 years, in 1991 the herb was placed on “import alert” (No: 45-06, May 17, 1991).
A virtual banishing of Stevia in the United States followed. In 1994, the FDA was forced to modify its alert because of the DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act). This act allows Stevia to be sold as a dietary supplement (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1996).
The United States government continues to restrict its use in teas and other food products. It cannot be sold in the sugar or artificial sugar section of the supermarket.
Stevia manufacturers cannot package the herb with imagery that suggests that it is a sweetener for coffee and such, though it is. Apparently, the FDA still believes Stevia is an “unsafe food additive” and a potential health threat (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1996).
In 1997, reports that Stevia is a potential cause of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) circulated as a result of the graduate work of Brazilian Maurio Alvarez. Alvarez believes his study was taken out of context (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1998).
To this day, no scientific test has demonstrated that Stevia poses any health threats. The Herb Research Foundation (HRF), America’s foremost source of accurate, science-based information on the health benefits and safety of herbs and dedicated to responsible informed self-care with medicinal plants, put out a very strong endorsement for Stevia.
“The FDA took action against Stevia, not based on any proclamation by the FDA toxicologist or consumer complaints, but because of a complaint from a company that didn’t want Stevia on the market.” This statement was made by Robert S. McCaleb, founder and director of HRF.
McCaleb is an internationally recognized authority on scientific and regulatory issues affecting herbs.
Common Forms of Stevia
You will have to look long and hard to find Stevia even at large health food markets such as Whole Foods.
It might be found near additives such as enzymes, brewers yeast or even protein powders, though clearly it belongs on the shelves with sweeteners.
Here are the common forms of Stevia sold in the US:
- Dried Leaves:
Pulverized leaves, sold by the pound or as a tea. The leaves are green making them useful to blend into homemade remedies and personal tea blends.
The leaves have a flavor (which some find offensive) similar to anise, fennel or licorice. Leaf powder is estimated to be 30 times sweeter than sugar. (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1996).
One form of the liquefied Stevia is an extract concentrated black liquid, resulting from boiling the leaves in water. This type is black. Clear liquid extracts are also available, readymade by various manufacturers.
Liquefied Stevia extract is estimated to be 70 times sweeter than sugar. (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1996) (Most liquid forms of Stevia are best avoided by Muslims as they are formed by using alcohol).
- Extract Powder:
For those seeking convenience, the extract powder is the best choice. The power is isolated compounds of the naturally sweet constituents in Stevia, Rebaudioside A and Stevioside, sold as a white powder in packets similar to the new sweetening product, Splenda ™ and the other packaged sweeteners.
The white powder is estimated to be 300 times sweeter than sugar and heat stable to 198 degrees Celsius (388 degrees Fahrenheit) (Bonvie, L; Bonvie, B, 1996).
Pros & Cons of Stevia
- Some manufacturers adulterate Stevia with other products, even sugar.
- Some customers have complained that Stevia causes headaches and tastes awful [Amazon.com customer reviews of ‘The Stevia Cookbook’ (Sahelian, R; Gates, D, 1999)].
- No conclusive reports on safety.
- Not regulated as a food, but rather as a supplement.
- Not always clear how to use it to replace sugar or sugar substitutes.
- Difficult to use for baking, does not react as with other leaveners nor does it caramelize.
- Nutritious; contains vitamins and minerals.
- Shown to attack plaque, improving oral hygiene and health.
- Safe to use for diabetes, obesity and those with high blood pressure.
- You can grow it yourself.
- Contains no calories.
- Has no impact on blood sugar.
- All natural.
- Anything in excess is toxic.
- Read labels carefully. Make sure that if the product is enhanced it is enhanced with substances you approve of. Some Stevia powders contain fiber that quickly acts as a strong laxative if combined with coffee (a known laxative).
- Buy from reputable sources, as prices vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer.
- Allergists suggest adding new substances, even natural ones, to the diet slowly and watching carefully for any unusual or troubling symptoms.
- Stay tuned for more about Stevia.
This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.
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