Stevia. The holy grail of sweetness?

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Stevia has been used by the native people of South America for more than 1,500 years as a sweetener and as a medicine.1  It has also been used in Japan for about 40 years with no ill effects being found.  Despite being sweet, stevia does not significantly raise blood sugar, so can be used as a sweetener even by people sensitive to sugar.  Furthermore it seems that it may stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin.  So stevia really could represent the holy grail of sweetness: low calorie, healthy, doesn’t disrupt blood sugar, sweeter than sucrose; all quite enough to make the makers of artificial sweeteners worry about their profits.

The herb Stevia, called Stevia Rebaudiana, grows in semi-arid places like Paraguay and Mexico, so if we live in a temperate zone, we can’t hope to grow it in our gardens, even if a drought has been declared across SE England.   Now, the bit of the plant we want lies in the leaves and the best sort of stevia based sweetener will be based on the entire leaves, as gone into in the above video. But since a naturally occurring plant cannot be patented and something like stevia presents a real threat to products like aspartame, any self respecting food company would be wise to restrict its sale – which is where we are going now.

Some excellent information about stevia can be found in Wikipedia.  Here we can read details about the fun had with stevia in the US.  In the 1990s the US government banned stevia unless it was called a dietary supplement, so in order to buy some the citizens had to don Ghandi’s fit flops and hunt about in the local health food shop.  Now, however, both Pepsi Cola (Pepsico) and Coca Cola have managed to extract the sweet active ingredients of stevia, stick them back together without any of the rest of the rubbish found in the plant, and flog them to us under the patented name of PureVia and Truvia.   Quite unrelatedly, of course, in 2008 the US government has declared the extracted part of stevia, called rebaudioside A, safe to use a food additive.  Pepsico uses rebaudioside A in its version of stevia, PureVia.  In 2009, Coca Cola got its version of stevia, TruVia, approved too.  Approval for us to buy stevia here in the EU was finally granted Dec 2011.

Now we have the magnificence of stevia keeping everybody happy.  And so we come to the small catch with stevia: it has a slightly bitter aftertaste, apparently a bit like liquorice. Pepsico recognised this and found that within the sweet elements of the plant, rebaudioside A carries the least bitterness, and this makes up part of PureVia. With our adoration of sweetness which, if unchecked, knows no boundaries, plus the lack of calories in stevia, Pepsico has no immediate worries about making a profit.  After all, heaven forfend that we should taste a little bitterness in our food.

In summary, stevia seems to be a safe sweetener to use.  Almost always, the more natural a product, the less risk of harm we run provided we don’t overdo it.  The slight bitterness of a natural stevia product will help to keep our rampant sweet tooth under control.  Of course, it comes down to individual choice as to whether we trust the products of companies like Coca Cola and Pepsico with our health, or whether we trust more in the wisdom of the native South Americans who generally use the whole leaves fresh or dried.

Maybe we can try growing it in pots. Will suit the under waterer.

  1. Louisa L Williams.  Radical Medicine. []

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