Stevia, Wonder Sweetener?

SteviaImagine a plant leaf that’s many times sweeter than sugar, which has no carbohydrates, no calories and a zero rating on the glycemic index. In fact there are strong indications that it actively supports metabolic health. What’s more, it has a history of indigenous usage as a sweetener, stimulating tea beverage and folk medicine going back at least 1500 years.

If you can imagine that, then you probably won’t have any trouble imagining that its introduction into the United States has proceeded under a cloud cover of bad science, bureaucratic dysfunction and corporate manipulation, to wit, U.S. food politics as usual.

Stevia

The plant is stevia raubadiana Bertoni (stevia) or sweet leaf, in Spanish, yerba dulce, or Ka’a he’e in the native tongue of the Guarani, the indigenous people of Paraguay who first utilized the many wholesome properties of this native plant. Spanish botanist and physician Pedro Jaime Esteve (1500–1556) was the first known European stevia researcher after whom the botanical genus is named.

In 1931, two French chemists isolated the glycosides that give stevia its sweet taste and began its journey toward commercialization. In 1971 when sweeteners such as cyclamate and saccharin became suspect as carcinogens, the Japanese began cultivating stevia as a sugar substitute. It now constitutes 40% of total Japanese sweetener consumption including Japanese Diet Coke.

Stevia as a Food Additive

In the early 1990s, applications to make stevia available as a food additive were denied by the FDA directly as a result of lobbying efforts by the billion dollar artificial sweetener industry (Splenda, Equal et al). It could only be marketed as a food supplement and not as sweetening agent in packaged foods.

However this situation was reversed in 2008 when Coke with Cargill Corp and Pepsi with Syngenta (a Monsanto spinoff) petitioned the FDA to approve their highly processed, proprietary stevia food additive products marketed as Truvia and PureVia respectively.  Of course the FDA granted their applications and stevia is now well on its way to becoming a leading sweetener within the US food economy, especially in low/no calorie commercial beverages.

Finding Stevia

Stevia first came to my attention when I was looking to find a sweetener that I could use without exacerbating my type II diabetes. However I had never sought it out because of its reputed bitter aftertaste. Not so long ago I bought some stevia coffee sweetening packets for a catering project. I later added a couple of the leftover packets to a breakfast bowl of plain organic yogurt and not-so-sweet organic strawberries. I thought it tasted great. It transformed a rather mundane albeit healthful breakfast into a deliciously satisfying sweet treat. I detected no unpleasant aftertaste in this application. (Stevia is much sweeter by volume than sugar and I suspect the aftertaste complaints stem mainly from excess dosage.)

Since then I’ve used it in sauces, stews and salad dressings (I prefer some offsetting sweetness in my vinaigrettes) with good effect. On the other hand, when I experimented using stevia to sweeten a home-made cranberry sauce I was unable to reach the desired level of sweetness, without an aftertaste.  The addition of a small amount of sugar or frozen concentrated orange juice seems to solve this problem.

Stevia Findings

In extensively researching stevia for this article I offer the following findings:

  • The Guaraní peoples have traditionally used stevia as a sweetener in yerba mate and other foods, and medicinally as a cardiac stimulant, for obesity, hypertension and heartburn, and to help lower uric acid levels. There is now some minimal scientific research to support these traditional practices regarding its effects on obesity and hypertension.Stevia has a negligible effect on blood glucose, and may even enhance glucose tolerance.
  • I am unable to find any clinical research concluding adverse effects of actual stevia. The 1500 years of indigenous plant use and the 40 years of Japanese commercial use, both without reported incident seems convincing to me.  Allergen alert – stevia is a member of the Asteraceae/Compositae family of plants including ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies, and sunflowers.  Nothing much is known about the impact of processed stevia use during pregnancy and breast-feeding, so caution is advised.
  • The prime commercial stevias, Coke’s Truvia and Pepsi’s PureVia foremost among them, are highly processed derivatives made with 40 steps involving many chemical compounds and contain a significant percentage of erythritol, a sugar alcohol derived from corn, almost certainly GMO.  Among the many articles I reviewed, wanting to make sure I wasn’t encouraging readers down a road of disease and destruction, I thought this one by the Food Babe website had the best balance of detail and scientific accessibility.
  •  The Sweet Leaf brand of stevia products seem a minimally processed stevia option available in Whole Foods stores and the Natural Groceries as well as online.  There are many organic and natural online sources for a host of stevia products. These three seem promising:  Sweetleaf,  Nowfoods and WholesomesweetenersHome gardeners can purchase organic seeds and plants online.  See multiple sources, such as Stevia.net.
  • A frequent nutritional concern with stevia along with all zero-carb, zero calorie sweeteners is that they can confuse our bodies’ hormonal responses resulting in imbalances. I believe this concern can be addressed generally by consuming stevia with a caloric carbohydrate source such as my stevia sweetened strawberries or, in a cooking application by blending 50% stevia with about 50% conventional caloric sweeteners such as fruit or fruit juice.  (As an interesting side note, read these unexpected critiques of the very fashionable coconut palm sugar, Tropicaltraditions, and agave syrup, DrWeil.

In Conclusion

With strong caveats to sweeten in moderation and especially steer clear of commercially sweetened beverages of all kinds, to listen to my body, to always suspect the products of mega-corporations and aggressively read labels, I’m definitely, confidently, 100% sticking with Stevia…for now.