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The History and Health Benefits of Stevia

by, S. Steve Dounis

Stevia is a herb native to Paraguay, South America, and is found mainly in the western hemisphere from South America to as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The leaves on the Stevia plant hold its sweetness. One leaf is about 30 times sweeter than sugar and calorie free. It has a zero glycemic index rating, so is good for diabetics, hypoglycemics, dieters and all of us. Stevia comes in powder and liquid form. The powder form comes also in individual packets.

The Discovery

Moises Santiago Bertoni (1857-1929), a Swiss botanist, was the first European to discover the sweet leaf plant, after he and his wife settled in Paraguay, doing scientific research in 1899. He and his wife’s name became the scientific name for the species Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni. His wife, who shared in the discovery, was Eugenia Rossetti Rebaud. Bertoni discovered that the Paraguayan Guarani natives had been using the sweet leaves in their yerba mate teas and in their medicinal teas for hundreds of years.

In 1931, two unnamed French chemists isolated the glycosides that contain the sweetness in the Stevia leaves and named them Stevioside and Rebaudioside. These two compounds are 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose from sugar and are heat stable, pH stable, and non-fermentable.

Begining of the Spread of Stevia

In 1971, Morita Kagaku Kogyo Co., Ltd., of Japan, was the first in the world to commercialize the Stevia sweetener. Since then, Morita has developed their own “Rebaudio” (rebaudioside) variety. Morita controls the whole process from cultivation of the Stevia plants to extraction and refinement of the rebaudiside glycosides. The Japanese have been using Stevia for over 30 years with no adverse effects. Stevia is used in Japan to sweeten Coca-Cola, other soft drinks, teas and food. Japan is the largest consumer of Stevia in the world.

Brazil approved Stevia Rebaudiana products in 1980. China began using Stevia in 1984. China is the world’s largest exporter of Stevioside. Stevia has been used in powder and extract form in the United States (U.S.), since 1995.

The Controversy

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) has not allowed Stevia to be sold as a sweetener but has allowed it to be sold as a supplement. Does this make any sense? If Stevia is good enough to be classified by the F.D.A. as a supplement (which is consumed), what is the difference with allowing it to be termed also a sweetener (which is also consumed).

This goes back to 1991, when an “annonymous” complaint (some suppose by the sugar and/or artificial sweetener industry) to the F.D.A. labelling Stevia as an “unsafe” food additive. The F.D.A., subsequently, banned the import of stevia giving the reason that it was not proven to be toxicalogically safe. The proponents of Stevia fought back pointing out that this violated the F.D.A.’s own guidelines under which natural substances used prior to 1938, with no reported adverse effects, should be “generally accepted as safe” (GRAS). Arizona Congressman John Kyle called the F.D.A. action “a restraint of trade to benefit the artificial  sweetener industry” (possibly the makers of Aspartame). To this day the F.D.A. has not released the source of the original complaint in responses to requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, citing “privacy issues”. Makes one wonder.

In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed by Congress. This forced the F.D.A., in 1995, to permit Stevia to be used. However, The F.D.A. permitted Stevia’s use only as a food supplement and not, also, as a food additive. This is an oxymoronic decision. The proponents of Stevia also see this as contradictory, labelling Stevia as both safe and unsafe, depending on how it is sold. In grocery stores you may notice that Stevia is only on the shelves in the natural food section and not placed besides all sweeteners in the spice aisle. Another example of our government bureacracy in action.

Health Benefits

The Stevia plants are rich in nutrients. These include: protein, calcium, phosphorous, sodium, magnesium, zinc, rutin, vitamin A, vitamin C, and others, but has no caloric value.

In 2000, The British journal of Pharmacology prinrted a Chinese study from Taipei Medical College and affiliated Taipai Wan Fang Hospital on a double-blind placebo-controlled study of the effectiveness and tolerablity of oral Stevioside in human hypertension. The report showed no significant adverse effect and no deterioration of quality of life. The study concluded that oral Stevioside is an “effective alternaive or supplementary therapy for hypertension”.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) in 2006, performed a thorough evaluation of the recent studies of Stevioside and Steviols on animals and humans and concluded that Stevioside and Rebaudioside A are not toxic and that no evidence of carcinogenic activity was found. The W.H.O. also noted that Stevioside has a pharmacological effect in patients with hypertension (lowers elevated blood pressure) and with the Type 2 diabetes (helps stabilize blood sugar levels).

As of 2008, the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have approved the use of Stevia as a sweetener and food additive.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Joint Expert Committee on Food additives (J.E.C.F.A), in 2008,concluded that Stevia steviol glycosides are safe for human consumption.

Stevia is also cultivated in Korea, Taiwan, China, and Israel.

In Atlanta, Georgia, Coca-Cola researchers Indra Prakash, John F. Clos and Grant E. DuBois studied clear glass containers of cola and lemon-lime sodas containing the two major naturally sweet components in Stevia, Stevioside and Rebaudioside A. The beverages were exposed to sunlight for one week to test the stability of the components. The scientist found no significant photodegration in either component of Stevia.

Even though Stevia may soon replace sugar in soft drinks, this does not make soft drinks any healthier. Why? Most, if not all, soft drinks contain phosphorous. Some soft drinks not only contain phosphorous but also excessive amounts of caffein. Both caffein and phosphorous strip calcium from your bones and may result in kidney stones (because the body cannot reabsorb the stripped calcium) and eventually causes osteoporosis (brittle bones) which leads to bone fractures. Better to drink water, tea or fruit juice.

Push for Stevia as a Sweetener

Coca-Cola is working with Cargill, Inc., on their version of Rebaudioside A sweetener, purified from Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni, in the brand name TruVia.

Pepsi has joined with the Whole Earth Sweetener Company (a subsidary of Merisant Company) in developing their Rebaudioside A sweetener, purified from Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni, called PureVia.

Both Cargill, Inc., and Whole Earth Sweetener Company have notified the F.D.A. that the Rebaudioside A should be granted generally accepted as safe (GRAS) status.

Wisdom Natural Brands, the parent company of SweetLeaf Stevia brand, the largest supplier of Stevia in the U.S., has said that it’s brand of Stevia is self-affirmed GRAS, without F.D.A. notification and, will be availabe in soda and/or food products by the end of year 2008. James May, the founder of Wisdom Natural Brands, has been involved with bringing Stevia to the U.S. for over 25 years.

The F.D.A. is expected to respond to the above mentioned petitions before the end of the year 2008. (See Update below).

Summing Up

There are literally hundreds of other studies that have been scientifically conducted over the past forty years world wide with no evidence Stevia is harmful to human beings in any form. On the contrary, most studies have added to the health benefits of Stevioside and Rebaudioside the natural glycosides in Stevia.

Stevia inhibits the growth and reproduction of bacteria preventing dental cavities (Department of Pediatric Denistry at the University of Illinois). Stevia is an aid to diabetics and hypglycemics because of its zero glycemic index rating. A boon to dieters because Stevia is calorie free. Helps to reduce elevated blood pressure in those with hypertension. There are many more benefits too numerous to include.

Sugar, on the other hand, displaces nutritive calories leading to numerous health problems and obesity. Artificial sweeteners can be hazardous to your health because of the reactions within their chemical make-up when used over long periods of time or in large quantities.

Conclusion

Stevia is the only REAL natural sweetner that offers health benefits besides its sweetness. It has been proven safe world wide. Even though Europe has not as yet accepted Stevia as GRAS, more and more countries around the world are seeing the benefits of using Stevia as a sweetener and food additive. England, especially, has an obesity problem as big as the U.S., and could reduce the obesity rate in half just by using Stevia. The United States (U.S.) can do the same. Using Stevia is a matter of national defense in preventing an ever growing obese population. We need a healthy populace to defend the nation. Use Stevia as your only sugar substitute.

Some Added Trivia

Stevia can be used in cooking and does not degrade when heated. However, it does not caramalize. Baking with Stevia may be challenging. Sugar is used in baked goods to add bulk and texture besides sweetness. With Stevia, you may have to add some sort of filler to add the bulk, maybe yogurt, nutmeal, crushed fruit or some other filler. Remember you only need small amounts of Stevia. You may have to experiment with the amounts to find what works best for your taste. Try it in your tea or coffee and at any time you need to add natural sweetness to food or drinks. My favorite is SweetLeaf brand Sweetener with Stevia Plus in individual packets for adding to hot or cold drinks. The SweetLeaf brand liquid I use in cooking. There are many other brands you may want to try.

Latest Update

The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN)/Office of Food Additive Safety of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, on December 17, 2008, notified Sue Andress, Director of Regulatory Affairs of  Whole Earth Sweetener Company LLC, of Chicago, Illinois, and Leslie Lake Curry, Director, Regulatory & Scientific Affairs of Cargill, Inc., Wayzata, Minnesota, that the rebaudioside A purified from Stevia Rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni has been granted generally regarded as safe (GRAS) status. GRAS Notice No. GRN 00252 for Whole Earth, and, GRAS Notice No. GRN 00253 for Cagill.

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    Rebaud was not part of Bertoni’s wife’s name. Rebaudiana comes from the name of the Paraguayan-born, Italian educated Argentinian chemist Ovidio Rebaudi. You can find information on Rebaudi on Spanish and Avañe’ẽ versions of Wikipedia.

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