STEVIA by Helen K. Chang
If scientists were to formulate the perfect sweetener of the future, it would taste good, have no calories, be nutritious, non-carcinogenic, non-toxic and safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics.
As a bonus this perfect sweetener might even reduce one’s hunger sensations, satiate one’s sweet tooth and’speaking of teeth?promote oral hygiene.
Well, the future has arrived. Stevia, a sweet-leaf plant with remarkable healing powers, is also the answer to dieters? prayers.
Ironically, this futuristic substance has been around for 1500 years. A small, green plant native to Paraguay, stevia’s leaves have a nectar-like taste that can be 30 times sweeter than sugar, depending upon the quality of the leaf.
Introduced to developed nations in 1899 by M. S. Bertoni, stevia is a Johnny-come-lately in receiving scientific scrutiny in the United States. In 1931 scientists reported stevioside, the principal sugar molecule component, to be a white, crystalline, hygroscopic powder, approximately 300 times sweeter than cane sugar. Only in 1963 did scientists finish identifying and isolating the complete chemical structures of the active molecules of stevia.
Stevia leaves vary widely in quality due to many environmental factors including soil conditions, irrigation methods, sunlight, air purity, farming practices, sanitation, processing and storage. In general, Paraguayan leaves contain the highest concentration (9?13 percent) of the sweet molecules steviosides/rebaudiosides, while Chinese stevia contains only 5?6 percent.
The stevia leaf should have a pleasantly sweet, refreshing taste that can linger in the mouth for hours. The leafy material between the veins contains the sweet components, surrounded by the bitter components found in the veins themselves. Great care must be taken during the extraction process to avoid contamination.
A History of Safe Use
The native Gurani Indians of Paraguay have used stevia since ancient times to sweeten foods and beverages and to heal the body.
Used extensively in Japan after a 1960s ban was placed on such artificial sweeteners as aspartame and saccharine, stevia products have been used in hundreds of the country’s mass market food products including diet sodas and low-calorie snacks, commanding a 52 percent share of the country’s commercial sweetener market today. In widespread use as a sweetening agent, not a single side effect of any kind has been reported.
Studies dating back to 1900 have consistently demonstrated the safety of stevia and millions of people around the world use it on a daily basis.
Following the 1994 passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), stevia and its extracts were distributed in the United States. In accordance with FDA regulations stevia products are marketed as dietary supplements, available at health food stores and are most often used as all- natural substitute for sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Despite sweeping toxicology tests and widespread global use without incidence of adverse reaction, stevia has yet to be approved by the FDA, which rejected two comprehensive petitions submitted in the 1990s, citing insufficient proof of stevia’s safety. Paradoxically the FDA-approved sweetener, aspartame, receives one of the highest number of consumer food complaints made to the FDA.
Health Benefits of Stevia
It is estimated that over 500 scientific studies have been performed on stevia. Many scientists have reported numerous health benefits to adding stevia to the daily diet.
Scientific research indicates that stevia effectively regulates blood sugar in people with diabetes and hypoglycemia, bringing it toward more normal levels.
Studies have indicated that stevia tends to lower elevated blood pressure while not affecting people with normal blood pressure.
Stevia inhibits the growth and reproduction of oral bacteria and other nfectious organisms. Regular users of stevia as a mouthwash or for brushing teeth (added to toothpaste) have reported an improvement to bleeding gum problems. This inhibition of oral bacteria may explain why users of stevia-enhanced products report a lower incidence of colds and flu.
When applied externally stevia poultices and extracts have been observed to have a therapeutic effect on acne, seborrhea, dermatitis and eczema. Placed directly in cuts and wounds, more rapid healing without scarring is reported.
Other benefits of adding stevia to the daily diet include improved digestion and soothed upset stomachs.
Stevia is also an exceptional aid in weight loss and weight management because it contains no calories and reduces the craving for sweets and fatty foods.
Steviosides, the principle sugar molecule component of stevia, pass through the human alimentary canal without being altered by digestive processes, demonstrating remarkable stability. They simply cannot be broken down into their metabolites under normal gastric conditions. As a result, the sugar molecules pass unchanged through the human gastrointestinal tract and are not absorbed into the blood, producing no calories. Preliminary research indicates that stevia may actually reset the hunger mechanism in people where the pathway between the hypothalamus and the stomach has become obstructed. In other words, it clears the communication pathway between the stomach and the brain, reducing hunger sensations faster.
Stevia Products and Uses
An herb that does not require extensive processing in preparation for commercial use, stevia products can be divided into two categories: whole leaf and extract.
Whole leaf: Stevia leaf is about 30 times sweeter than sugar. The exact sugar equivalent is difficult to determine because for every plant and every harvest the sweetness may vary slightly. Whole leaf product, including stevia tea bags, ground stevia, concentrate and tablets, retain the nutrients of the leaves. These nutrients and numerous phytonutraceuticals help to nourish the pancreas, often improving pancreatic function.
Laboratory tests have found that Stevia leaves contain aluminum, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), ash, austroinulin, calcium, beta carotene, chromium, cobalt, dulcosides, fat, fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, protein, rebaudioside, riboflavin, selenium, silicon, sodium, stevioside, thiamine, tin, water and zinc.
Commonly used in tea, whole leaf pieces can also be used as a seasoning on or in any food including meats, vegetables, soups, pasta, sauces, salads and cereals. Added to other beverages, one standard size tea bag will sweeten two to six cups of liquid. For a nutritious snack, children love a mild stevia tea frozen on a stick. A used tea bag placed over the eye produces a gentle smoothing of wrinkles. Whole leaves ground to a fine spice-like powder can be used as seasoning or in baking recipes for breads, cookies, cakes and muffins.
Stevia concentrate: This most versatile form of natural stevia is used both for its sweetening characteristics and healing benefits.
Diabetics and hypoglycemics report this form to be the most helpful since it more effectively aids in normalizing pancreatic function. It is also reported to lower high blood pressure while not affecting normal blood pressure. When diluted with water it functions as an anti-bacterial agent, to be used as a mouthwash, and users report the elimination of bleeding gums as well as lip and mouth sores.
Helpful for acne outbreaks, concentrated stevia has been used for any manner of skin problems including healing cuts and abrasions. Applied to an open wound it produces a stinging effect for about 45 seconds, followed by a significant lessening of pain, with rapid healing of the wound from the deepest point outward. No scab forms and no scar remains. An excellent addition to first aid kits, physicians recommend the concentrate for burns and report rapid healing with less pain after the initial contact.
For relief of sore throat in 30 seconds, squirt a full dropper or more into the mouth; tilt the head so that while swallowing, the concentrate will flow over the sore area. Repeat if the soreness begins to reappear.
The concentrate also makes an excellent facial mask, effectively softening the skin and smoothing out wrinkles.
This concentrate is also available in dry tablets, which are sometimes more convenient but not as versatile.
Stevia extract: The pure glycosides or stevioside (principal sugar molecules) extracted from Stevia leaves are 300 times sweeter than sugar. Best used for cooking, baking and enhancing the taste of commercial food products, stevioside contains no calories and is low in carbohydrates. For optimum quality, look for 90 percent pure steviosides with a 40 percent ratio of rebaudioside A.
Since pure stevioside is too sweet for individual servings or drinks, manufacturers have created blends:
Clear liquid stevioside can be dissolved in water and can be applied, a few drops at a time, to flavor food and beverages. It must contain a preservative and be refrigerated after opening. Blends with alcohol are not advised.
Stevioside (5 percent) and maltodextrin (95 percent) blends are usually available in single serving packets. Maltodextrin is a bland-tasting sugar, a complex carbohydrate made from cornstarch. Often used for carbohydrate loading in specialized foods it contains maltose, dextrose, maltotriose and saccharides and is not recommended for use by diabetics or those watching their weight and carbohydrate intake.