Known by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay as kaa he-he or sweet herb, it has been used for centuries to sweeten herbal teas, medicinal potions, or simply chewed for the sweetness. As civilization encroached upon the Guarani, the use of stevia spread throughout Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. By the 1800′s the entire region was enjoying it. This begs the question, are the modern, commercial versions as good as kaa he-he?
It took an Italian botanist by the name of Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni to identify, analyze and give Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) it’s western name. Dr. Bertoni had been studying kaa he-he for many years. Because of the difficulty in getting around the wilds of Paraguay to collect it, he thought it was very rare. It turns out, it was very widespread if you knew where to look. In 1908 the first stevia crop was harvested and by 1913 stevia was widespread.
Marketability of stevia
Back in the early 1900′s interest was raised about the commercial potential for marketing this unique herb as a sweetener. In 1921 stevia was presented to the USDA by American Trade Commissioner George S. Brady as a new sugar plant with great commercial possibilities.
It seemed like a great product because of its highly sweet taste (300 times sweeter than sugar), nontoxicity, very low processing requirement, and safety for diabetics. Why didn’t stevia gain popularity and realize its great commercial potential in the United States?
Most likely because the powerful cane sugar industry felt it would be a competitor and they were able to keep it at bay.
Discovery of pure stevia extract
In France in 1931, two chemists isolated the most prevalent of several compounds that give the stevia leaf its sweet taste — a pure white crystalline extract they named stevioside.
During the 1970′s, the Japanese found a use for stevia because they strictly regulated and even banned artificial sweeteners, in an attempt to keep chemicals out of their food supply. They soon discovered the ideal replacement for both sugar and its synthetic substitutes — refined stevia extracts. It was used as a tabletop sweetener much like we use aspartame (a neurotoxin) and saccharin (a carcinogen) here. They also incorporated it into a variety of foods such as ice cream, bread, candies, pickles, seafood, vegetables, and soft drinks.
In India, stevia is known as Gulvel/Amrutvel and has also been used in their Aruvedic culture and medicine.
Stevia in the United States
From the mid-1980s to 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had labeled stevia as an unsafe food additive and had gone to extensive lengths to keep it off the U.S. market — including initiating a search-and-seizure campaign and full-fledged import alert in 1991 to prevent it from entering the US.
In 1994 under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), stevia was allowed to legally be marketed as a dietary supplement. However, the FDA stated that they do not have enough data to conclude that it was safe as a food additive, therefore, it could not be marketed as a sweetener.
FDA tried to regulate stevia as a food additive
The FDA contended that there was inadequate evidence to approve stevia. The Japanese didn’t seem to have this problem as they had been using it for 50 years without problems.
Finally in 2005, stevia was approved for use as a sweetener by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives.
In 2008 the FDA granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status to rebaudioside A, one of the chemicals in stevia that makes it sweet. Presently, it is available as a sweetener and commercial food additive. This does not include pure stevia powder — only the refined glycosides.
Metabolism of Stevia
The sweet extracts are known collectively as steviol glycosides. Rebaudioside A and stevioside are the most abundant of the steviol glycosides. Steviol is the breakdown product of these two extracts which is broken down by the bacteria in the intestines and released into the bloodstream on the way to the liver.
In the liver, steviol is conjugated with glucuronic acid in a detoxification process which then shuttles it over to the kidneys as steviol glucuronide.
In the kidneys it is filtered and excreted in the urine. Studies show that steviol glucuronide does not accumulate in the body.
Stevioside may be beneficial to glucose metabolism
There are now studies that show the safety record of stevioside. This study published in 2008 showed that there were no pharmacological effects of steviol glycosides in people who had normal and low blood pressure as well as type 1 and 2 diabetics.
In this study by the National Institute of Health in 2010, stevia was one of several sweeteners to be studied. One of the findings was that stevioside consumption in preloads lowered postprandial insulin levels. Their conclusions were that if future studies confirm these findings, then stevioside may be helpful in managing postprandial hyperglycemia, which recent studies indicate is an important contributor to the development of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
In this study published in 2005 by Chang, Wu, Liu and Cheng, stevioside has been found to increase insulin sensitivity in rodent models and may do the same in humans.
This study in 2002 in diabetic rats showed stevioside worked so well that the researchers conclude that it…” may have the potential of becoming a new antidiabetic drug for use in type 2 diabetes.”
Additionally, this study in humans found that stevioside reduces postprandial blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetic patients, indicating beneficial effects on glucose metabolism. The researchers concluded that stevioside may be advantageous in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
There have also been studies of stevioside that show it to have anti-inflammatory actions.
No negative side effects with steviol glycosides were reported in this study (Barriocanal, 2008). In this study of both stevioside and rebaudioside A in Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2008… “… No safety concerns were noted as determined by reporting of adverse events, laboratory assessments of safety or vital signs.”
Is there a down side to stevia?
Yes. Maybe. There have been studies in lab animals that show that steviol (the aglycone of stevioside — don’t ask me what an aglycone is) was found to produce dose-related positive responses in some mutagenicity tests. However, these tests were subsequently dismissed as several other studies showed that it was only extremely large amounts that caused the mutations.
The crux of the matter
Although stevia is a pure substance that has no calories and a low glycemic index, stevia sweeteners are compounds that have other additives that may contain calories and other unwanted substances.
Along with the GRAS recognition from the FDA, came the green light to food industry giants to jump all over this product that appears to be safe and highly marketable. The soft drink companies are jumping on this wagon and surely, others will follow.
The problem is that these stevia based sweeteners are not pure stevia and the additives and refining processes they use create a different substance which may use different metabolic pathways for detoxification than what we would expect with pure stevia.
There is also the question of long term use, higher doses (if people are guzzling soft drinks with stevia extracts), interaction with other herbs and medications, use in infants and children as well as the lack of studies with the actual extract approved for use here.
Yes, these extracts have been approved by the FDA — but, as you may know, the FDA puts on a great pretense of protecting the public, while they are hand in fist with the worst corporate monopolies.
Truvia — a cross between stevia and powdered sugar?
Truvia was approved by the FDA in 2009 from food giant Cargill, who developed this product along with Coca-Cola. The name implies a true (pure) product that is made of stevia. The fact is, truvia is made from boiling stevia leaves and then processing (with ethanol) it in order to extract the chemical rebaudioside A or rebiana.
Here is the problem with rebaudioside A or rebiana
Most of the research and long term use with stevia extracts has been done with a compound called stevioside. Steveoside has been used in Japan since the 1970′s. Therefore, what we know about commercial stevia is based on steveoside, not rebaudioside A or rebiana.
On a positive note, this study published in Food Chemistry Toxicology in 2008 studied rebaudioside A in two generations of rats and found that rebaudioside A was “…
not associated with any signs of clinical toxicity or adverse effects on body weight, body weight gain, or food consumption. No treatment-related effects of rebaudioside A were observed in either the F0 or F1 generations on reproductive performance parameters including mating performance, fertility, gestation lengths, oestrous cycles, or sperm motility, concentration, or morphology. The survival and general condition of the F1 and F2 offspring, their pre-weaning reflex development, overall body weight gains, and the timing of sexual maturation, were not adversely affected by rebaudioside A treatment.
Truvia also contains natural flavors — that means that your guess is as good as mine as to what is in the natural flavors. Since the term natural flavors is unregulated, it could be MSG or some other nasty neurotoxin.
Truvia also contains erythritol, a sugar alcohol that is also a low calorie sweetener with problems of its own — the topic for another post.
The problem with extracting only the active chemical
In nature, things work synergistically — that is they work together in a concert of more than just the parts. There are active components and there are other components that may moderate the reaction in many other ways. Importantly, there are protective components that are available to tamp down oxidizing free radicals when they are in the natural, whole state.
This is true for any edible substance and is the reason the natural whole state is best.
Other stevia sweeteners
These are all marketed as zero calorie, low glycemic index sweeteners that are appropriate for diabetics and other who wish to reduce sugar intake.
Good and Sweet
Good and Sweet is a purified white stevia powder. From their website:
FDA approved the use of Good&Sweet™ Reb-A 99% produced by Blue California as a natural sweetener (FDA GRAS notice GRN0000278, July 21, 2009). The FDA concurred with the scientific findings that this ingredient is safe for use as a sweetener in a variety of food products. Many countries have approved the use of stevia purified at a minimum 95% purity. Good&Sweet™ is produced with the highest purity Reb-A available in the market.
PureVia was developed by PepsiCo in partnership with the artificial sweetener company Merisant. Like Truvia, it also has the same stevia extract as well as the sugar alcohol erythritol.
PureVia adds in a little isomaltulose – another supposedly safe sweetener that is derived from regular sucrose to create a sweetener with a longer sustained energy release in the body.
We don’t know much about isomaltulose other than it does not harm teeth and doesn’t give digestive upset.
SweetLeaf stevia is marketed as “… the only chemical-free, zero-calorie, zero-carb, zero-glycemic index, natural sweetener there is.” There are only two ingredients in the powder: natural stevia leaf extract and inulin, a natural fiber that is considered a prebiotic.
According to their website:
SweetLeaf Stevia® Sweetener is the only sweetener in the world to use cool, purified water and a revolutionary filtration process to extract a select blend of glycosides. Because no chemicals, solvents, alcohols or additional processes are used at any stage of production, SweetLeaf® needs no masking or flavoring agents to hide anything. It simply has a clean, sweet taste that is ideal for all food and beverages.
This appears to be a cleaner product than Truvia or Purevia but it still uses the extract rebaudioside A. Their product line of flavored drops also has other chemical flavorings in them.
Stevia in the Raw
Stevia in the Raw is anything but. Made from the In the Raw company — the makers of Sugar in the Raw and Agave in the raw (read what I have to say about agave here). Here is what they have to say about their product:
Unlike some of our competitors, Stevia In The Raw derives virtually all its sweetness from stevia leaf extract, whereas some of the other stevia-based products contain sugar alcohols, such as erythritol (Truvia™) .The high purity level of our stevia leaf extract eliminates the aftertaste found in some less pure Stevia products currently in the market.
Then they go on to say:
Dextrose is a natural carbohydrate derived from corn. Many sugar substitutes in powder form contain dextrose because it is a natural ingredient and does not change the flavor of the sweetener in the blend. In our packet product, dextrose is used to dilute the very potent stevia leaf extract to make it measurable for consumers; dextrose does not alter the naturally sweet flavor of the Stevia.
I guess it is not so pure after all.
Other additives to stevia sweeteners
These include, alcohol or glycerine as a carrier in the liquid drops. I prefer the liquid drops and have used a product with just stevia and glycerine. Vegetable glycerine is a sweet substance typically obtained from palm or coconut oils. It is an alternative to alcohol for preserving herbal tinctures because it is a good solvent of herbal constituents and a preservative.
I have not read anything negative about using an herbal tincture carried in glycerine. I prefer it over alcohol.
The bottom line for stevia
I have been experimenting with liquid stevia extract in cold drinks and I find it to be a good way to sweeten a cold drink especially since only a few drops are needed. However, in my opinion, there is nothing like the taste of raw honey.
As a whole I think more research needs to be done with the stevia extracts in the products on the market today. We know a lot about the safety of stevioside, but we need to know more about the extracts that are in use here: rebaudioside A or rebiana.
Clearly, stevia is a good alternative to the neurotoxic artificial sweeteners on the market as well as a good alternative to sugar. It has no calories, is low glycemic, does not feed candida and is appropriate for people with sugar regulation problems.
What do you think? Do you use stevia and which form of it do you use? Leave a comment a let me know!