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Nutrition Section

Stevia or Sweetleaf - a natural sugar substitute

What if there was a sweetener that was wholly natural, with no calories that has over 1500 years of testing on humans to prove it is safe, would you use it?

While the chemists forged ahead looking for a chemical substitute for sugar, there was a natural substitute right under their noses, that had been in use for over 1500 years already. In Paraguay and Brazil (South America), the Guarana natives were using stevia for medicinal use. They had a habit of chewing a leaf of a plant for it's sweet flavour. The leaves there are 30 - 45 times sweeter than sucrose (sugar) but contain no calories at all.

The Stevia conspiracy

When the Spanish colonised the South Americas they sent botanists to the new world to investigate the new land and it's people. They brought back lots of samples, including some strange miracle plants like the tomato and the potato. Amongst the botanists jounals was a report of a mint like plant that had sweet tasting leaves, used by the natives as a sweetener. At this time the only sweetener in Europe, other than honey, was sugar which could only come from the sugar plantations in the tropics. These plantations in the new colonies were operated by slaves and run by the immensely rich "Sugar Barons". a cartel of wealthy land owners and who's who of the upper class of European society. Since there was no sample of this plant that had survived the trip to Spain, the matter was studiously ignored, much to the relief of the sugar barons.

Slaves operating a cane crushing mill

Sugar plantations operated by slave labour netted the Sugar Barons a fortune, so why would they look at stevia? The high mortality rate of slaves also fuelled the slave trade.

Because the mortality rate of slaves in the harsh working conditions on the sugar plantations was much higher than their reproduction rate, the sugar plantations also fueled a constant slave trade of African slaves. Introducing competition into the sugar market would have far reaching economic effects throughout Europe and the new world. It made economic sense to conceal the presence of a natural sweetener. For the next 500 years, every attempt to get Stevia recognised as safe for food use was blocked by the sugar cartels.

So what's so good about Stevia?

Many people who use artificial sweeteners today, still have not heard of stevia. The powerful sugar barons and the artificial sweetener manufacturers have both gone to considerable efforts to thwart the acceptance of stevia as a food substance and prevent any attempts to market stevia and who can blame them?

Just look at the advantages:

    The sweetness does not need any chemical treatment to extract; just pluck off a leaf.
    In leaf form it is 15 -30 times sweeter than white sugar and as an extract is up to 150 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose (white sugar).
    It contains no calories, so is ideal for weight watchers.
    When consumed it does not induce a blood sugar spike, so is perfect for diabetics.
    It has been in use for 1400 years that we know of in South America. This is more extensive testing than even cane sugar!
    Extensive tests to determine any toxicity in stevia, have all failed to find any harmful compounds (unlike the artificial sweeteners).
    Unlike artificial sweeteners, in extract form, it has no after taste. This varies when used in herb form, depending on growth conditions. Some people say they have a slight licorice after taste when using the whole leaves.
    Japan has used it extensively for over 20 years and has over 100 patents for different extractions and fermentations of stevia.
    Stevia is a herb that you can easily grow in your garden or indoors in a plant pot. Try that with your artificial sweeteners!

A stevia plant growing indoors

A stevia plant growing indoors

So why are we only just starting to hear about it?
Firstly because it was finally authorised for food use by the FDA only in 2008.
Because imagine what it means to the economies of sugar growing nations if you could grow your own, on your window sill?
Imagine if you are a chemical company with millions invested in making and marketing a no calorie sweetener?
The chances are you have already tried stevia - Coca Cola use it as a sweetener in it's "Coke Zero" softdrinks, that's how they get it down to "less than one calorie", with it still tasting like Coke. Coke already had a low calorie version (Diet Coke) on the market, why do you think it launched a competing version with it's own Coke Zero?

Coke Zero uses stevia as a no calorie sweetener

Coke zero uses stevia to reduce the amount of sugar but retain the sweet taste.

Finally when stevia was accepted by the FDA as a food additive in 2008 and it didn't have that lingering metallic after taste that the artificial sweeteners in Diet Coke had, Coke at last saw they had a real sugar substitute to tap the overweight, diabetic and sugar conscious market. The move to combat obesity is turning people away from carbonated drinks because of their high sugar content. The manufacturers like Coke and Pepsi have to come up with alternatives because they are losing customers to juice manufacturers and sports drinks with lower sugar content.

Separator bar with green apple

Stevia - A little background

The first European detailed description of stevia is recorded by Pedro Jaime Esteve, a Spanish botanist and physician. Because Latin was the language of the sciences his name was 'Latinised" into Petrus Jacobus Stevus. From this we get the botannical name, Stevia, for the genus of around 240 plants, all native to the Americas, that all have sweet tasting foliage. Most contain other compounds that are bitter, giving them an unpleasant taste. However a few that grow in the Paraguay region lack these bitter compounds and have been used by the native inhabitants for at least 1400 years as a sweetener and a medicinal herb.

The introduction of the tomato and the potato from the new Spanish Colonies overshadowed the discovery of this sweetener from the South Americas. After all, Europe was already having a love affair with sugar and fortunes were being made from cane plantations in the colonies, who needed another sweetener?
Stevia was all but forgotten

Stevia leaves

Stevia is a mint like shrub and requires the same growing contitions but is not as invasive.

Crayfish

Noble Crustaceans

When we say someone is a "blue-blood", we are supposed to be implying they are of noble birth. Unfortunately crayfish and other sea crustaceans are the few creatures that really do have blue blood.
Perhaps the comparison intentional?

 

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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

The cover-up begins

It was the end of the 1950s and chemistry was the science of the future. The war had thrown vast sums of money into research and we had a whole new range of wonder compounds, like plastics, drugs and artificial sweeteners. Spurred on by sugar rationing, several substitutes for sugar had been patented and were returning considerable profits. The sugar substitutes were not having a huge impact on the sugar market either, so a natural balance existed in the market.

An application for a natural sugar substitute had been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration and had been rejected, quashed by the chemists. As far as the public were concerned Chemicals were the new miracle. Scientists had fought polio and produced wonder drugs, antibiotics and insecticides. In the mind of the public, they could do no wrong. No-one questioned their rejection of the application for stevia to be certified for human consumption.

In 1985, after another application for stevioside, (a sweetener extracted from stevia), to be recognised as a food additive, a study claimed that steviol, a breakdown product of stevioside, was a mutagen. When the experimental process was peer reviewed, it was found that distilled water substituted for stevioside also could be shown to be a mutagen too. The whole test process was a sham and the data processing was statistically flawed to show any material tested was a mutagen.

Japan banned all artificial sweeteners and began cultivating stevia and was extracting the glycosides for use as sweeteners in food way back in 1971. All US studies ignored the lack of harmful effects on Japanese consumers.

Stevia growing commercially in Japan

Japan banned all artificial sweeteners and has been growing Stevia commercially for the last 20 years

There was also a ruling the FDA would deem all products in regular use prior to 1958 that did not show detrimental effects, as certified for human consumption. Stevia should have fitted into this cartegory but the FDA did not grant it certification.

In 1991 after an anonymous complaint, stevia was labelled as an "unsafe food additive" by the FDA. It became obvious that there was some political or commercial motivation behind these decisions and the impartiality of the FDA was challenged in congress. When the Freedom of Information Act was used to get the documents for this complaint, the FDA has blacked out all names and any references that could divulge the identity of the complaintant. The possible reason for this opposition to stevia being accepted as a food additive, was that stevia is produced naturally therefore it could not be patented and could replace the chemically sythesized artificial sweeteners with patents already earning millions of dollars. These artificial sweeteners were the only ones certified as food additives at this time and thus they monoplized the market.

In 1994 the FDA was forced to endorse stevia as a "dietry supplement" and in 1995 it was able to be sold commercially. This was still not a complete endorsement because it left an element of doubt about the safety of stevia if used as a regular food item. In 1999, studies with animals that were inconclusive, prompted the European Commission to ban the use of stevia in food in the European Union until more research was carried out. In 2006 the vast weight of trials with stevia proved that it was not a mutigen and the European Commission lifted the ban. In December 2008 the FDA had no option but to acknowledge that stevia was safe and gave the GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe) approval to Truvia (developed by The Coca-Cola Company) and PureVia (developed by PepsiCo and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company). Both are derivitives of stevia.

Truvia sweetener

Truvia was one of the first extracts of stevia to be approved by the FDA for sale as a food item.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple


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