Stevia

Stevia rebaudiana—commonly known as stevia, sweetleaf, sugarleaf, the sweet herb of Paraguay—has remarkably sweet leaves. At a time when alternative sweeteners are in strong demand, stevia appears on stage as a big player. This sugar substitute is natural (nonsynthetic) and has zero calories.

In addition, water extracts of stevia are up to 300 times sweeter than sucrose, and the taste lasts longer than sucrose. The sweet taste is a result of two similar glycosides (stevioside and rebaudioside A) that are found in the plant’s leaves.

<b>Useful for Diabetes and Hypertension? </b>

For centuries residents of Brazil and Paraguay have used stevia as a treatment for type 2 diabetes and as a sweetener in medicinal teas to treat various ailments. Stevia has a negligible effect on blood glucose, so it is attractive as a natural sweetener for the management of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and for use in carbohydrate-
controlled diets.

Now, a recent one-year clinical trial revealed that hypertensive individuals who consumed 250 milligrams of stevioside three times a day experienced a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.

In Japan, China, and Korea stevia has been used in foods and soft drinks for many years as an alternative to the artificial sweeteners saccharin and cyclamate, which are suspected carcinogens. Stevia has also been used in South America for centuries. The wide use of stevia has been without any apparent harmful effects.

<b>Safety Clearance</b>

In 2006 the World Health Organization evaluated stevia and found no evidence that its sweet compounds have any carcinogenic activity. However, ongoing human research will examine if there is potential for long-term risks.

<b>Coming to a Table Near You</b>

Stevia, which has been sold in the United States as a nutritional supplement for some time, was recently approved as a sweetener for food and beverages. It is available in liquid and powder form. (Since stevia is intensely sweet, the powder is often diluted with bulking agents and fiber, to make it easier to use.)

A new process of isolating rebaudioside A from stevia results in a product that is intensely sweet without a bitter aftertaste. Rebiana is the trade name for this new product.

Truvia is a tabletop sweetener containing Rebiana recently released by Cargill, the leading producer of corn syrups; and PureVia is a version released by Whole Earth Sweetener, the maker of the sweetener Equal.

Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola have announced that they will be using stevia sweeteners, and other companies are sure to follow.

<b>Conclusion</b>

Stevia is a safe alternative to sugar. Like all sweetening agents, it should be used in moderation.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.