Published On: Wed, Dec 12th, 2012

A sweetener by any other name just as sweet! A great alternative for Diabetics

stevia2-by Dina Clingman-Bell

Oh stevia, stevia wherefore are thou stevia? Deny thy government and refuse thy name?  stevia…’tis but thy name that is thine own enemy; “O, be some other name!”  Ok, so I have taken quite a bit of artistic license through my retelling of Shakespeare’s beautiful soliloquy but a tragedy is a tragedy and after all I have read regarding stevia’s trials and tribulations to be recognized as a sweetener; it may well be deemed a tragedy.  You see “what is in a name?”  Will that which we call stevia rebaudiana by any other name – taste just as sweet? 

There is nothing I love more than a good story assignment that leads me to uncover the benefits of a naturally grown product but to uncover a controversy in the process; puts me in my element.  My mission seemed simple – write an article about a sweetener that is good for diabetics; easy, right? Oh no! You see what I uncovered is the perplexing and not so sweet history of the herb stevia rebaudiana. 

“The genus stevia consists of 240 species of plants native to South America, Central America, and Mexico, with several species found as far north as Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. They were first researched by Spanish botanist and physician Petrus Jacobus Stevus (Pedro Jaime Esteve), from whose surname originates the Latinized word stevia. Human use of the sweet species S. rebaudiana originated in South America.” (1) This wild shrub deemed kaa hee (honey leaf) by Guarani Indians of regions in South America was a sweetener used as an addition to drinks or simply chewing the leaves and its history shows continued use throughout many centuries.

The official discovery of Stevia however, is credited to a Swiss botanist; Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion.  Dr. Bertoni, also an explorer learned of the herb in 1887. While out on expedition, native guides introduced the herb to Dr. Bertoni, however, as the plant was growing outside of its natural habitat he was unable to relocate the herb for twelve years; even then only to be presented with a few dried leaves from which he could study. Once rediscovered Dr. Bertoni announced this Stevia genus in the Aununcion botanical journal it was then named in honor of Paraguayan chemist Rebaudi who was the first to extract the sweet constituent from the plant. In 1903 a live plant was given to Bertoni by a parish priest and he was finally able to perform a complete study on the plant.  So arrived the genus deemed Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni.  By 1913 Bertoni realized he had not found a rare species in this plant but conversely a widely known and well used herb throughout much of North and South America.  

In 1918 stevia was introduced to the US Department of Agriculture and three years later was promoted as a “new sugar plant” and deemed an “ideal and safe sugar for diabetics”. However, the commercial potential of this herb was not unbeknownst to others who were “less than happy about it”. “In 1913, a report from the official public laboratory of Hamburg, Germany, noted that; specimens received are of the well-known plant which alarmed sugar producers some years ago.”   (2) Little attention was paid to the herb until 1931 when stevia became a commercially viable product after two French chemists isolated glycosides; the sweetening compounds in the herb these were named stevioside and rebaudioside; they are 250-300 times as sweet as sucrose, ph stable, heat stable, and non-fermentable. 

The numerous health benefits of this sweetener were quickly being discovered yet it took several decades until it became adopted for the commercial market. In the 1970’s in an effort to rid their food supply of artificial sweeteners such as cyclamate and saccharin which were suspected carcinogens the Japanese turned to stevia products as a replacement. Stevia was sold all over the world including the United States. By 1994 the Japanese demand for the product was responsible for 40% of the sweetener market.

Studies have shown stevia has anti-ageing properties and can aid in the reduced risk and control of diabetes, ADHD, hypertension and obesity mostly due to its low glycemic index. The Glycemic index ranking provides us with a guide to rate how certain carbohydrates affect our blood glucose levels (usually within two to three hours after eating); this scale is a ranking from 0 to 100. More recent medical research has shown; stevia has but a minor effect on blood glucose, even enhancing glucose tolerance; therefore, it is well received as a natural sweetener for diabetics and those on low carbohydrate diets. Its Glycemic index is zero which in the simplest terms means the sweetening properties of this herb contain no carbohydrates therefore it has no effect on blood glucose. In fact the many nutrients found in the leaves are believed to help regulate blood sugar.  

Having read of the positive attributes of this healthy sweetener I began to question why we are only now seeing a mainstream push for the advertisement of this beneficial herb. What I discovered is the fight for this product has been an arduous and completely obscure process. Despite its great reputation the US was still hesitant to allow the product to compete with patented artificial sweeteners. In the 1980’s stevia in the US was not yet able to be labeled a sweetener. As it turns out it is not possible by law to hold a patent on a naturally occurring substance.  Call it coincidence but by1991 after an anonymous complaint (seriously?) the FDA labeled stevia as an “unsafe food additive” and applied import restrictions. Now please keep in mind the FDA is the same organization that in 1990 banned all use of the amino acid L-tryptophan, this product was being used to successfully treat depression with great success.  Within four days of the near eradication of L-tryptophan came the first news release “praising the virtues” of Prozac what would become the first of many widely used prescription only depression medications. Oh but forgive me as I digress. Stevia remained banned until 1995 when it was allowed to be sold as a dietary supplement, not a food additive.

We now see it commercially sold under trade names as a result of a plea to the FDA by Cargill, a multinational billion dollar agricultural commodity distributor, requesting the right to use rebaudioside-A.  In 2008 the FDA deemed Rebaudioside-A “GRAS” (generally recognized as safe). As stated in the notice: “Cargill concludes that, based on the totality of the available data on rebaudioside A and on other steviol glycosides, rebaudioside A is safe under the conditions of its intended use”. Even with the granted GRAS status the FDA made its own statement regarding the product “the agency has not, however, made its own determination regarding the GRAS status of the subject use of rebaudioside A purified from S. rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni”. (3) 

So it seems Cargill is the protagonist of this report yet true to “tragedy” form there are no real heroes.  As it turns out the sweetener is purified with their own formula under the trade name Rebiana. This formula has been reported as having traces of ethanol and methanol; also erithrytol a sugar alcohol made from genetically modified corn. Again it is left to us to read every label and do our own research regarding most products consumed; even the ones marked “all natural” or promoted as safe. This seems quite a lot of fuss over such a simple little herb and now how do we go about finding a pure form of stevia. 

Stevia is a relatively easy perennial to grow and harvest from your own backyard; as opposed to sugarcane, sorghum or beekeeping for honey.  The plant tolerates most growing climates and can be grown in raised beds or container gardens.  Harvest can be a breeze and air tight storage of the dried leaves can provide you with a product that can last years. While a home garden supply may not provide you with your entire sweetener needs it certainly can supplement your commercial purchases.  

Not all commercial varieties are as dubious as others so again I emphasize do your research and compare products.  When making your food selections –read the ingredient list- if you don’t recognize an item, write the name down then go look it up; after all this is your health at stake so it will be well worth the effort.  The power of the consumer is quite evident given the time, effort and billions of dollar put into marketing products to us.  Through that power we can influence the industry and by our purchases alone we quietly demand healthy products be provided to us – it really is that simple.

In regards to Stevia it seems quite a tragedy, taking in account the evidence gathered over decades of research, the benefits of this natural sweetener have remained clear yet it has taken so long to reveal them to the general public. I am also befuddled by our inability to allow a naturally grown product, used for over 1500 years, to remain just so; without alteration.  Today, we appease ourselves with near to true forms of the sweetener known as Stevia we market them under trade names and there they are new baptized. Oh Stevia, dear Stevia were it not possible to retain thy dear perfection; for what matters is what something is, not what it is called.

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