Native to Paraguay, stevia has pale green leaves that are about 30 times sweeter than table sugar. It’s easy to grow in warmer areas of the United States and is a lot healthier than all the artificial sweeteners people seem to be using these days. I planted one in my garden this year for the first time and have been extremely pleased with how well it has done.
What makes stevia sweet is a glycoside called stevioside, which is about 150 to 250 times sweeter than sugar. Licorice is another naturally-sweet plant where the sweet taste comes from glycosides, but it isn’t nearly as sweet or as pleasant-tasting as stevia.
Stevia is extremely safe. According to Daniel Mowrey, Ph.D., a scientist who researches herbs, “few substances have ever yielded such consistently negative results in toxicity trials as stevia.” No study has ever shown any harm from the whole leaf, or from the stevioside extract and there are more than 100 studies to back up stevia’s safety.
Natives in Paraguay have used the plant for at least 500 years to sweeten both teas and foods. They also drink stevia leaf tea. Stevia is approved for use as a sweetener in many countries, including Japan, China, Korea, Israel, Paraguay and Brazil.
Stevia’s Legal Battles with Artificial Sweetners
However, in spite of this history of safe use and all the good research on stevia, the Food and Drug Administration set up numerous road blocks to the use of this herb. In the late 1980s, they began visiting herb companies selling stevia, telling them to stop using it because it was an “unapproved food additive.” One FDA inspector is reported to have told a company president that they were trying to stop the the sale of stevia “because Nutra Sweet complained to FDA.” (www.henriettesherbal.com)
Early in 1991, with no evidence to prove that stevia was harmful to human health, the FDA banned it from import. In July of 1991, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) contracted with the Herb Research Foundation (HRF) to perform a safety review on stevia. Douglas Kinghorn, Ph.D., the world’s leading authority on plant derived sweeteners was hired to conduct the review.
He concluded that stevia was safe and two other top scientists reviewed his work and agreed. Each time the FDA raised objections about stevia to AHPA, HRF supplied data to answer their concerns. But the FDA continued to ban imports of the plant. Finally, since the FDA had no evidence to back up their ban on stevia, they allowed it to be imported again as a whole herb. At first, it was only allowed for cosmetic purposes, and later was allowed as a food.
The FDA still classified stevia as an “unapproved food additive” however and refused to allow it to be used as a sweetener. Finally, in December of 2008, they allowed rebaudioside A from stevia to have GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in the United States. It is still banned in the Europian Union however.
It’s pretty clear that the artificial sweetening industry doesn’t like stevia and has used government agencies to try to keep it out of the marketplace. It’s absolutely amazing how aspartame (Nutri-Sweet) got approved in spite of all the studies showing it was toxic, while something like stevia, with all the studies coming out positive, had such road blocks.
Given the track record of problems with artificial sweeteners, I predict it is only going to be a matter of time before the latest artificial sweetner Splenda is also going start coming under increasing fire for health problems. It is chlorinated sugar, after all, and chlorine is not good for our bodies.
The Benefits of Stevia
The purpose of this article, however, is to extol the virtues of stevia, not to denounce the vices of artifical sweeteners. So here are some of the positive benefits of stevia.
Stevia appears to have a blood-sugar balancing effect. It is widely used in Paraguay as a remedy for diabetes, but it also seems to help with hypoglycemia. Like licorice (which also contains glycosides that are many times sweeter than sugar), it may help to stimulate sugar to be released from storage in the liver. One study showed that stevioside reduced glycogen stores in the livers of rats. It also has a slight blood pressure lowering effect in cases of high blood pressure.
Stevia is antibacterial. Herbalist Kathy Keville observed that her tea blends containing stevia did not spoil. It inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause gum disease and tooth decay and is used in many countries as an ingredient to sweeten tooth paste.
Less well known is stevia’s ability to help heal skin problems. It has been used to help heal acne, seborrhea, dermatitis and eczema, wounds, burns, and lip sores.
Nature’s Sunshine sells a stevia extract which can be used as an alternative to artificial sweeteners. A tiny amount goes a long way. It can be used to sweeten tea or coffee and works well in many recipes. It is stable when heated, so it can be used in baked goods.
I personally haven’t done much experimenting with this, as I prefer to cook with natural sugars like freeze-dried sugar cane juice, maple syrup and honey, but other people have reported they’ve been successful with this. I’ve dried some of the leaves from my garden and plan to expermient with using them this winter.
Both the whole leaf powder, and the extracted stevioside, can be used. The whole leaf adds a slight amount of flavor, so the stevioside extract is preferred by many people. Since the stevia and the stevioside extract are so extremely sweet it is better to err on the side of caution when testing recipes. You can always add more if it doesn’t taste sweet enough.