What’s So Great About Stevia?

What’s So Great About Stevia?

What’s white, granulated, used as a sweetener in food and drink and rapidly becoming a billion dollar industry? Before you answer sugar, here are a few more clues. Unlike sugar, this product does not noticeably raise blood sugar levels, is virtually carbohydrate free, very low calorie and may actually help regulate insulin and pancreatic function in diabetics. Yep, stevia may just be the wunderkind of the sweetener industry and guess who doesn’t think that’s so sweet? Big Sugar (the industry, not the sub-par 90’s band, no offence, none taken etc. etc.).

Stevia is a member of the sunflower family and is naturally about 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has been a staple in the Japanese diet for 30 years and for thousands of years inParaguay and other parts of South America where it is referred to as “sweet leaf” and used in foods as well as medicinally.  Stevia made its first real foray into the North American market about 10 years ago when it started popping up in health food stores in as a substitute for sugar for use in coffee, sweetened tea or baking. And yet, it didn’t become the nutritional phenom one might expect with all its purported benefits over sugar. What gives?

Not to sound too much like the crazy lady with all the conspiracy theories but much like the auto industry’s disdain for the electric car and the oil industry’s refusal to consider alternative fuels, turns out the sugar people were not fans of stevia (don’t even get me started on the grassy knoll and the book depository!) Despite good hard science that shows stevia is for all intents and purposes safe (i.e. doesn’t seem to cause cancer or other assorted awfulness) some countries banned it and others severely restricted its sale. In fact, in Canada stevia iscategorized as a “dietary supplement” and must be labelled as such. It cannot be used as a food additive (for example in baked goods or beverages).  In the United States that status was only expanded in 2008 and stevia is now allowed to be used as an additive. In Australia, New Zealand and the EU, stevia is allowed without much restriction.

And while all “new, or new to us” foods and additives should go through a rigorous vetting stage, it seems that political and economic factors, not just health and safety, may have made stevia’s path to the mainstream a little steeper. About the FDA actions, one congressman said he felt there was a “restraint of trade meant to benefit the artificial sweetener industry”.

A 2011 review of recent research suggests that in addition to being a healthier alternative to sugar stevia may be more than just neutral for people with diabetes. It may actually “improve insulin production and sensitivity and help to reverse diabetes and metabolic syndrome”. Obviously, people who have diabetes should defer to their medical experts and much more research is needed but the idea of a sugar substitute that is not some manufactured Frankenfood cooked up in a lab is…..sweet.

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2 Comments

  1. Lori
    March 27, 17:10 Reply

    Thanks for this great post. I’m wondering if you’ve cooked/baked with it. Have you found it alters the taste once you apply heat?

    That’s been my only reservation with trying it.

    Also, would you feel comfortable serving it to your kids?

    Thanks!

  2. Kathy
    March 28, 17:27 Reply

    Hi Lori,
    so glad you liked the post. When stevia first came on the market, I was careful not to recommend it to my personal training clients because the jury seemed to be out on the research but I have to say, over the last few years it seems a lot of quality research has put the fears to rest and I personally would feel fine using it in baking my niece or other children were eating. As for the baking, stevia can be heated up to 400 degrees and tastes totally fine….the tricky part is the amount since it is so much sweeter than sugar. There are tons of conversion charts on the web and a with a little trial and error, most baking turns out fine. Some people find the liquid extract easier to work with than the powder. Hope that helps!

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