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Stevia Rebaudina News

Beyond Sugarcoating
by Gregory Tozian
From Organica News - 1997-08-01

The ancient, super-sweet herb Stevia is finally gaining popularity in the West

Thousands of years before Ben met Jerry, people started their search for the perfect sweetener. Scientists and chefs discovered licorice, sugar cane, honey and many other familiar treats. But the perfect sweetener? Well ...

The ideal sweetener would be extremely sweet—maybe hundreds of times sweeter than sugar—so you could get by with using very little of it, yet it would be virtually calorie free.

For decades researchers have tried to come up with just such a sweetener in the laboratory, but artificial sweeteners—from saccharin to aspartame—have their well publicized drawbacks. And drug companies' artificial sweeteners definitely don't jibe with the ideals which drive most health food store owners and consumers.

Yet, since the modern rediscovery of Stevia rebaudrana, an herb whose remarkable leaves and flowers have been satisfying the sweet teeth of South Americans for more than a thousand years, one wonders why science keeps trying to solve the perfect sweetener riddle.

The Stevia leaves—indigenous to Paraguay—are themselves 30 times sweeter than sugar. Additionally, more than 60 years ago, European scientists also isolated stevioside, the compound that makes Stevia sweet. That extracted compound is an incredible 300 times sweeter than sucrose. So, in recipes that call for a cup of sugar, a 1/4 teaspoon of stevioside is recommended as a substitute. Today, stevioside is widely used throughout the Orient and South America to sweeten many of the products for which sugar use is more common stateside.

One slight hitch to using Stevia as a sugar substitute in the United States has been the ever reliable Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1991, the FDA stopped the importation of Stevia while they pondered its benefits.

Luckily, the federal agency did determine that it was O.K. to sell and use Stevia in this country, so long as the substance is sold as "a dietary supplement" (under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994), instead of as a sweetener. For all intents, that's a technicality.

The packages of Stevia powder, leaves and extract that appear on our health food store shelves today may say "dietary supplement" on them, but clever consumers use the wonder herb as a sugar substitute.

There is also evidence that Stevia is a valuable tonic—both as an herbal tea and even a hair and skin care agent—and has been used as such for centuries by the Paraguayans. So far as science has been able to determine, Stevia does not have any unpleasant side effects.

Research on Stevia and stevioside continues to go on around the globe. The latest news is that the future may show that another compound of the Stevia plant, rebaudioside, may prove to be an even better sweetener than stevioside. Apparently, rebaudioside is even sweeter than stevioside, but tastes better.

And taste is a potential stumbling block with much of the Stevia being sold in the U.S. Undisputedly, the best Stevia in the world comes from its indigenous Paraguay. However, it seems that little of the readily available Stevia/stevioside in the American marketplace is actually Paraguayan. Or, if it is indigenous, it's rarely top grade. Even in Japan, where Stevia accounts for a hefty percentage of the sweetening agents used commercially, most of the herbal sweetener is reportedly grown in the Far East, not in Paraguay.

Before you buy Stevia/stevioside, you might try to determine where the product you're looking at was actually grown. Country of origin might be on the label, or the store owner may know. Barring that information, you might buy the product and simply see if you like it. Much Stevia has a slightly bitter or "grassy" aftertaste, the degree of aftertaste depending on the quality of the herb, and the palate of the consumer.

Other good sources of information, naturally, are the many sites on the Internet, which contain vast amounts of Stevia documentation. Any of the standard search engines will be able to come up with a whole evening's worth of sites that will tell you more about what may be the world's most perfect sweetener. Of course, when visiting sites which are put up by companies that deal in selling Stevia and stevioside, you might want to take the information with a grain of salt, if not sugar.

 
 

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