A Sweet Tradition
Graham Butler, BSc, CNPA, RH
Our cultural love affair with sugar is no secret. Nor is the fact that too much sugar isnâ??t good for anybody. But if you have a sweet tooth, youâ??ll be happy to hear about one plant thatâ??s being seen on more and more shelves.
Our cultural love affair with sugar is no secret. Nor is the fact that too much sugar isn’t good for anybody. But if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be happy to hear about one plant that’s being seen on more and more shelves. This popular sweetie is stevia, and in an era of nearly epidemic diabetes, weight problems and calorie counting, it’s a near non-caloric sugar alternative that neither contributes to tooth decay nor elevates blood sugar levels–just two of its many endearing qualities.
Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is native to Paraguay and Brazil. Several compounds found in its tiny green leaves make this plant the most potent natural sweetener known–some 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar. First used by the Guarani and Mato Grosso Indians long before Columbus arrived in the New World, it was brought to the attention of western scientists by Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion, Paraguay, in the early 1900s. Bertoni spent almost 15 years following rumours of this fabulously sweet plant, spurred on by his growing belief that stevia’s economic potential could rival that of the expansive sugar plantations of the New World. Though stevia has never fulfilled Bertoni’s vision, its day may be coming!
Unlike other natural sweeteners, stevia cannot be ingested or fermented by most common forms of bacteria, so it doesn’t promote cavities. In fact, it appears to have a weak anti-microbial effect as well as a relatively high mineral content that toothpaste and cosmetic formulators like to take advantage of. Its slightly astringent quality is of additional use in the cosmetics industry. Aside from its obvious sweetening power, stevia has found its way into nutritional supplements based on its traditional use as a digestive aid.
Researchers in Brazil and Taiwan have found evidence that stevia has potential vasodilation (blood-vessel dilating) and mild anti-hypertensive characteristics, which may be useful for those with high blood pressure. In addition, studies in Brazil and Denmark indicate that it can lower blood glucose levels, probably by means of stimulating insulin production—a potential benefit for type II diabetes.
Cooking With Stevia
Equivalency Table: Stevia to Sugar*
|Sugar||Leaf powder||Powdered extract||Liquid|
|1 tsp||1/8 tsp||Tip of toothpick||1 drop|
|1 tbsp||1/8 tsp||pinch||3 drops|
|1 cup||2 tbsp||1/2 tsp||48 drops|
*Equivalents are general guidelines only. Stevia is heat stable and suitable for baking, but be aware that sugar not only provides sweetening power but also volume and texture to products. You’ll need more information for these uses, but don’t worry. There are many good cookbooks and online recipe sources.
Development and Use
Shortly after Dr. Bertoni’s discovery, commercial cultivation of stevia began in earnest. Although native to the Amabai Mountains bordering Brazil and Paraguay, stevia adapts well to growing conditions such as those found in Korea, China, Germany, Japan, Britain and Canada.
French scientists Briedel and Lavieille isolated one of the principal sweeteners in stevia, stevioside, in 1931. Stevioside was used briefly during the Second World War in Britain as a sugar substitute, but its principle proponent outside of South and Central America has been Japan. Concerns regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners led Japanese researchers to investigate stevioside from the 1950s to 1970s and conclude that it was a safe, natural alternative to sugar. Today stevia is approved as a food in South and Central America, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China. Applications include but are not limited to soft drinks, baked goods, pickles, fruit juices, confections, jams and jellies, yogurts and chewing gum. Unfortunately, stevia has been unable to overcome regulatory barriers in North America (with the exception of food supplements) and Europe.
Why has stevia never been able to make significant inroads into North American and European markets? Earlier in this century, the sugar industry was very concerned about potential competition from stevia. Lobbying efforts were undoubtedly instrumental in blocking access to these important markets.
More recently, stevia has become embroiled in a bureaucratic and regulatory debate centering on the issue of whether it is a food or food additive.
Although stevia is a plant with a long history of safe use backed by studies in Brazil, Japan and Taiwan showing clear health benefits–characteristics more in keeping with a food–both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada have chosen to classify it as a food additive–a view, not surprisingly, supported by the artificial sweetener industry. The basis of the regulatory position is twofold: 1) that the effects of stevia extracts such as stevioside have not been sufficiently evaluated, and 2) that there is some evidence to suggest that a component of stevia may have mutagenic properties—a not uncommon finding with many foods. Interestingly, Agriculture Canada is currently busy researching the potential for commercial production of stevia in Canada to be marketed through industry partnerships to Asia. The webs we weave!
Under current legislation, new food additives must undergo stringent and costly testing and evaluation–in essence a licensing cost that would be difficult to recover from an unpatentable natural product such as stevia, although some of its extracts may find their way to market through this route. Fortunately though, regulatory Catch-22s work both ways, as stevia is available as a food supplement in both the United States and Canada.
You’ll most likely find stevia at your local health food store. The most common forms are powdered leaf, powdered or crystalline extracts and various liquid extracts. Look for products that have no aftertaste or lingering bitterness, an indication of quality. With stevia, it’s once again possible to satisfy your sweet tooth without the disadvantages associated with high sugar consumption.