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Stevia: The Turbulent Tale of a Natural Food Additive

Updated on March 29, 2010
Stevia plant (http://samuraiknitter.blogspot.com/)
Stevia plant (http://samuraiknitter.blogspot.com/)

If you have not heard of stevia, you're not alone. Certain forms of the this South American plant have only recently found tenuous approval as alternatives to zero calorie sweeteners in the United States. The Japanese have been using stevia leaf extract as a natural sweetener instead of chemicals like aspartame and sucralose for over 30 years. The FDA remains concerned about stevia's safety, however, in spite of the fact that Japan has reported no adverse health effects from using the natural sweetener. Many nutrition and health experts across the globe believe that these concerns are founded in faulty research and feel that stevia makes a safe and viable sugar alternative.



Stevia Through the Ages

The beneficial properties of stevia are not a recent discovery. As far back as 1,500 years ago the Guarani people of Paraguay have been using stevia in a variety of ways. When the Guarani first stumbled upon the stevia plant, they were amazed at its sweetness. They added crushed stevia leaves to sweeten their hot teas and called the herb "kaa he he," which means "sweet herb." The Guarani soon found that stevia could be used in a variety of other ways, including:

  • Softening skin
  • Aiding digestion
  • Nourishing the pancreas
  • Balancing blood sugar
  • Smoothing wrinkles
  • Healing blemishes, sores and wounds

The use of stevia quickly spread from Paraguay to Brazil and Argentina, and eventually to Europe. In 1887, Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni "discovered" the indigenous plant during his time as director of a college Paraguay, and he gave it the name "stevia rebaudiana." In 1931, stevia's commercial viability became reality when two French chemists isolated the compounds that make stevia so sweet.

By the 1970s, Japanese scientists had determined that stevia was far safer for consumption than other sweeteners suspected of causing cancer. Now Japan accounts for 40% of stevia consumption worldwide, used in soft drinks, foods, and at the table. Stevia is currently used in many other east Asian countries as well as in South America. It is verified as a safe sweetener in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil, and France but remains banned in the rest of Europe, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The United States along with Switzerland and Canada allow stevia to be sold as a food additive and supplement, not as a sweetener.

The Stateside Stevia Debate

Although companies like PepsiCo and CocaCola continue to petition for the approval of stevia as a sweetener in the United States, the FDA (and the European Union and United Nation panels) says that they hold unresolved concerns about stevia's toxicity and effects. Although the Japanese have been using stevia extract as a sweetener for three decades, they use smaller amounts of it in one sitting than what Americans are expected to consume. Toxicologists believe that larger amounts of stevia may cause negative side effects including:

  • decreased sperm production and infertility in men
  • decreased fertility in women
  • decreased newborn health and viability
  • cancer
  • interrupted energy metabolism, especially in children

Stevia champions point out that the scientific studies which produced the findings on the dark side of stevia were flawed. The data was so mishandled that the studies would have attributed distilled water with identical negative side effects. Further studies have since proven that stevia is not carcinogenic and does not lead to infertility. What's more, properly handled data shows that stevia could in fact help treat diabetes in addition to serving as a natural very low calorie sweetener that does not raise blood pressure.

Where to Find Stevia

In 1995 the FDA approved the sale of stevia as a food additive or nutritional supplement, not as a sweetener. In December 2008, the rebaudioside A extract of stevia was deemed generally recognized as safe (GRAS), but the stevia plant itself remains banned as a sweetener in the United States. Regardless of FDA status, this natural sweetener can be purchased as concentrated powders or in liquid form from the vitamin section of many stores, especially natural food stores. The internet remains the most reliable and most thrifty method of purchasing stevia.  Sadly, stevia is still quite expensive, especially in local grocery stores.

What's So Great About Stevia, Anyway?

Stevia is a hotly debated topic in the nutrition world. But is it really worth the attention? I feel that stevia really is a wonderful product, but that is only my opinion. Scientific studies have shown that stevia has many benefits:

  • sweet, yet sugarless with negligible calories
  • does not effect blood sugar levels
  • all natural
  • prevents cavities
  • safe and recommended for diabetics and hypoglycemics
  • non-toxic

I use stevia regularly, mostly as a sweetener for hot tea or in smoothies. While stevia is available in a wide range of forms (liquid extracts, jars of powder, individual serving-sized packets, just-for-baking formulas, and so forth), I prefer to use the individual packets. Because stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, I tend to use a half packet at a time per cup of tea or smoothie. However, stevia can be used in recipes as well.  Keep in mind that less is more with stevia, and then over-using this wonderful product can result in a bittersweet aftertaste. 

Homemade banana kiwi frozen yogurt
Homemade banana kiwi frozen yogurt

Recipe: Banana Kiwi Frozen Yogurt

  • 6 oz. vanilla yogurt
  • 3 oz. plain yogurt
  • about 1/2 cup skim milk
  • half of an individual serving packet of stevia
  • 1 banana, chunked/mashed
  • 1 kiwi, peeled and diced

Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl, then transfer to an ice cream maker. Follow the the directions in the ice cream maker's manuals and churn for 30 minutes. Serve immediately for best flavor and consistency. Makes 4 small servings.

All writing and photography copyright of Beth Morey, 2009-2010. Reproduction/reprinting is prohibited, although linking to this hub as an information source is permitted.

Talk back! Is stevia safe?

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    • betherann profile imageAUTHOR

      Beth Morey 

      5 years ago from Montana

      Wow that sounds scary! Thanks for your thoughts and advice!

    • Meggan Tropos profile image

      Meggan Tropos 

      5 years ago from United States

      I recently (after years of trying) managed to switch to stevia over nutrasweet and splenda because everyone touted it as a natural alternative. While it is great for diabetics because it does tend to lower blood sugar, it definitely is not great if your blood sugar is on the low side to start with! After a few weeks I began experiencing tunnel vision, shakes and weakness. Testing my blood sugar showed that it dropped it dangerously low. Once I stopped using stevia, all went back to normal. As usual, it is not for everyone. Thanks for mentioning some of the negatives - most people rave that stevia is the solution for all, but really it is like everything else - moderation is key, and some people just cannot use it.

    • Mary Merriment profile image

      Mary Merriment 

      8 years ago from Boise area, Idaho

      It's one of those confusing cases. Stevia may be a better alternative, but by the time it's mass produced and highly-refined, then it may become as bad for us as all the other sweetener alternatives have. It's obviously not about what's healthier, it's about what's cheap!

    • GarnetBird profile image

      Gloria Siess 

      8 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      I've been using Stevia for years now and LOVE it! Good Work on your Hub!

    • betherann profile imageAUTHOR

      Beth Morey 

      8 years ago from Montana

      Hot dorkage - I agree! Apparently there is a lot controversy over the FDA's reasons for banning stevia, and many feel that such a move would drive big companies like Nutrasweet out of business. The horror!

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 

      8 years ago from Oregon, USA

      Hey good to find you. I just wonder if stevia may be having so much trouble because it is a regular plant instead of something that must be cooked up in a chemical factory. I'm willing to take my chances with stevia--surely it can't be any worse for me than aspartame and splenda. I use a tea made of stevia leaf to sweeten my smoothies. And I certainly don't guzzle down great gobs of it.

    • betherann profile imageAUTHOR

      Beth Morey 

      8 years ago from Montana

      Zsuzsy - thanks for your thoughts! I agree that stevia does take a little bit of adjusting to, but I find 1-2 Tablespoons of lemon juice and 1/2 packet of stevia in a mug of hot water is a delicious AM drink. I've tried the baking powder form of stevia, but have yet to try the liquid because, as you so aptly mentioned, stevia is SO EXPENSIVE. But it treats my body well, so I go for it and then use sparingly. I was really lucky to win a NuNaturals stevia product giveaway not too long ago, because otherwise my wallet would just not have allowed me to try anything but the stevia packets! Maybe if commercial bigshots like Pepsi and CocaCola get their way, stevia prices will drop. Here's hoping!

      Also, I grew some stevia last summer. It was more bitter than the processed powders in stores, but I could still use it to good effect, especially in dishes that required blending. If you have success I'd love to hear about it!

    • betherann profile imageAUTHOR

      Beth Morey 

      8 years ago from Montana

      Nancy and Pamela - thanks for commenting! If you do try out stevia, I hope you'll let me know your thoughts.

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 

      8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Great hub.I have been using Stevia for over 12 years now. When it first came on the market it was only available in liquid form (in my neck of the woods). Now that it comes in little packets its soooo convenient, just like the sugar twin etc.

      However the sad thing about it is that it's still murderously expensive. I just bought a package of a 100 packets at our BulkBarn here in Canada for can$10.89. Mind you, I only use a 1/3 of a packet per coffee, thus the package lasts forever.

      I found that Stevia had an after-taste in tea with lemon so it took me a bit of time to get used to it.

      For cooking and baking I still prefer to use the fluid rather than the powder.

      This year I'm going to try to grow my own. I just ordered the plugs as it is said that it takes a bit to germinate the seeds.

      Great hub

      regards Zsuzsy

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Great hub. I want to check this out.

    • nancy_30 profile image

      nancy_30 

      8 years ago from Georgia

      Interesting hub. I've never heard of it before, so thank you for all this information.

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