Stevia...the sweetener superb, yet stymied

stevia plantStevia is a plant used by native Indians of Paraguay for centuries. It's leaves, when chewed, provide a long lasting sweet taste. Dry the leaves and crush them, and they become exponentially potent and perfect even for we sweet tooths of America. However, the odds are, you know nothing about Stevia. Well, we're here to fix that. After reading this article, you will hopefully learn about this great product and begin enjoying its many uses.

This beautiful bounty of the earth in many scientific studies, has been proven to have no calories, no carbohydrates and zero unhealthy drawbacks unlike those found in sugar and other artificial sweeteners. It's even been found safe for diabetics and, in some studies, even lowered blood sugar levels. Of course a diabetic would want to consult with their physician regarding a change in diet. However, if it is immediately pooh-poohed by them, ask them for documentation to support their viewpoint.

Stevia is currently on the market and widely used in many countries around the world such as Korea, Germany, China, Israel and those of South America. It was introduced in the United States at the beginning of the 1900's but was shunned by the FDA. As the years rolled by, it was picked up by countries such as Japan who saw the beauty of this non-toxic, natural sweetener. They had already banned most artificial sweeteners because they didn't like the use of chemicals in their food supply. The Coca-Cola company in Japan even uses it in their products.

In the 1990's, when it was found to be used in certain American food products, the FDA banned its use as a "food additive" or "sweetener". Rather, they said that it had to be sold as a "dietary supplement". All this despite the fact that it sweetens better than any other non-caloric sweetener.

They based their ban on the view that there was insufficient information regarding its toxicology and therefore its safety could not be ensured. This view is unsupported by many in the scientific community who, through extensive testing, have found no adverse side effects. Nor have there been reports of side effects, despite its centuries of use elsewhere in the world. Interestingly, they can deem it safe as a dietary supplement but not as a sweetener/food additive? Much political controversy has taken place over this sweet plant and conspiracy theories abound as to the reasons why. Let us not forget to mention that Stevia is cheaper than any other non-caloric sweetener used in the U.S. (i.e., saccharine, sorbitol, sugar alcohols, maltitol). Likewise, it cannot be patented or trademarked by any company. Additionally, because it is very strong, it is used in very small amounts. Add up all of the Stevia pros/price and put them on the scale against the nearly trillion dollar market for these other sweeteners -- well, you get the point.

Stevia comes in different forms: fresh leaves which may be chewed, although the intensity of the sweetness is much less in this form; leaves that have been dried and crushed which increases its sweetness; as an extract which results in a white powder which is many times sweeter than regular sugar; or as a concentrate of which there are several different liquid forms. The sweetness of the plants vary from region to region. It has proven to be a versatile plant, now cultivated in many different parts of the world. It requires a warm climate and could only be grown in the very southernmost and warmest states of the U.S. such as Florida and Arizona.

Cargill, in conjunction with Coca-Cola, has created a derivative of the plant called "Truvia". Several other companies have done the same. Eventually, the FDA will have to admit that not only is Stevia a great product but it may actually be good for us. As of July 2008, Stevia is being reconsidered and reviewed once again by the FDA for approval as a food additive. Many wait with bated breath to hear the outcome which is expected shortly after the new year. Even NutraSweet has plans to make its own derivative of the sweetener should it receive the seal of approval by the FDA.

For now, Stevia can be found in health food stores everywhere and in some grocery stores in the health food section. Because of FDA regulations it is not labeled as a sweetener so you won't see any claims to that effect on the box.

There are several brands that have made their own derivative of the plant which, in its pure form has a slight licorice taste due to one of the components. That component has been removed in these products and the end result is a wonderful sweetener that can be used with a clear conscience. We have not tried every brand available but are fond of the NuNaturals Stevia because they have refined it using 100% natural ingredients. It has very little aftertaste and a little bit goes a long way.

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