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How Sweet It Is!

Author: Ray Sehelian
Source: Better Nutrition, Nov, 1999

Why stevia may be just what we need in an over-sugared, artificial sweetener-plagued world.

What if there were a natural sweetener that:

* Were 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, with minimal aftertaste
* Had no calories
* Were suitable for diabetics
* Appropriate for children
* Did not cause cavities
* Were heat stable and thus could be used for cooking and baking
* Were a great alternative to synthetic sweeteners
* Easily blended with other sweeteners such as honey
* And were already wider and safely consumed in many countries around the world for decades.

Wouldn’t you think that you would already know about it? Wouldn’t you think that many of our food products would already be sweetened by it in instead of artificial sweeteners?

Well, this remarkable no-calorie herbal sweetener called stevia is, unfortunately, not a household name. It should be. I believe that eventually stevia will be one of the most popular and widely used sweeteners in the world.

Stevia is a plant of the daisy family that grows naturally in South America. The plant, at its full maturity, reaches a height of close to three feet. The green leaves of this plant contain large amounts (up to 5 percent of dry weight) of stevioside, a sweetener estimated to be 300 times as sweet as table sugar.

Certain Indian tribes in South America have used stevia for hundreds of years, possibly even before Columbus landed there.

By the 1800s, daily stevia consumption had become well entrenched throughout the South American region.

Is stevia safe?

Stevia has been used as a sweetening ingredient in foods and drinks by South American natives for many centuries, and there is no report of any plant toxicity to humans. Stevia has been added to a number of food products in Japan since the mid 1970s, and no indications of any significant side effects have yet been reported after more than two decades of use. Similarly, no reports of any adverse reactions to stevia have been reported in the United States (where stevia can only be labeled as a dietary supplement,  not a sweetener).

A help for diabetics

Stevia can be helpful to anyone, but there are certain groups which are more likely to benefit from its remarkable sweetening potential. These include diabetics, those interested in decreasing caloric intake, and children. The availability of artificial sweeteners has been enormous benefit to diabetics. However, there’s always been a concern that overconsumption of these synthetic sweeteners may cause some unknown harm to the body. Could stevia substitution be a good alternative in diabetics? Yes, Stevia  leaves have been used as herbal teas by diabetic patients in Asian countries. No side effects have been observed in these patients after many years of continued consumption.

Sweet teeth with no cavities

Even a 5-year old child knows that sugar causes tooth cavities. There are certain bacteria in our mouths, particularly streptococci mutans, that ferment various sugars to produce acids. These, in turn, eat through the enamel of the tooth causing pockets or cavities.  Fortunately, studies with stevia indicate that it does not cause tooth cavities.

Practical tips

Those who are novices at using stevia often make the mistake of using too much. Since stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar, excessive amounts can lead to over-sweetness and an aftertaste. Generally, one teaspoon of stevia would be equivalent to one cup of sugar, while a quarter teaspoon would be equivalent to one tablespoon of sugar. Stevia is available in concentrated liquid form, and often two to four drops of stevia liquid added to tea or coffee is sufficient to sweeten the drink.

Hopefully, with time, stevia can be added to a variety of sodas, candies, gums, and other foods in the U.S., just as it currently is in Japan and other countries. Who knows? We could see stevia packets in restaurants right along with, you know, those pink and blue artificial sweeteners.