Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Stevia instead

Stevia: Natural, No Calories, and Sweeter than Sugar

We all know the average American diet contains far more sugar, hidden and outright, than it ought. We are advised to forego processed foods for whole foods, but still, they could often use a bit of enhancement. So how to sweeten a cup of tea, a bowl of raspberries or oatmeal, in a healthy way?

The answer is Stevia. It appears there is a God, and a fair one at that. After all, if He-She as going to give us a sweet tooth, the least He-She could do is also give us a no-calorie, all-natural sweetener. This gift is the Stevia leaf, which is some 300 times sweeter than sugar and contains not a single calorie. How's that for small miracles?

It gets better. Stevia is nutritious, too, containing magnesium, niacin, potassium, and vitamin C. It has been shown to stabilize blood sugar levels. Remember that when you reach for your next dose of refined sugar, which can throw your blood sugar out of whack and then suppress your immune system by up to 50%. And I won't even go into the range of side effects associated with the artificial sweeteners.

Stevia has earned its place at the top of my "if I'm ever stranded on a desert isle" list of "must haves" (along with a really good moisturizer and a good book.) For the last few years, I've used it daily. It enhances the taste of tea, which I'm drinking even more of since reading that 5 cups of black or green tea (at only 4 calories a cup) has the same nutrition benefits as two servings of fruit and vegetables, and guards against cancer and heart disease. If you are weaning yourself from soft drinks, try a bit of Stevia extract in carbonated water. Anywhere you might use a bit of sugar, try Stevia instead. You can also bake with it.

Pronounced "Steve-ee-ah" or "Steh-vee-ah," (first syllable accented) this leafy green plant has a long history of use. For centuries South American tribes used it internally as a digestive aid or externally as a dressing for skin wounds. Sixteenth century Spanish Conquistadors wrote home about it. Native to Paraguay, Stevia is also grown commercially in Brazil, Central America, Israel, India, Thailand, Korea and China. Here in the U.S., there are a few test plots, and some nurseries offer Stevia plants for kitchen herb gardens.

Food manufacturers should be happy. Stevia is inexpensive compared to chemical sweeteners. Extracts of the sweet tasting phytochemicals, called steviosides, come in powdered and liquid form. This versatile botanical has been widely used for thirty years in Japan, where Stevia extracts comprise over 40% of the market for sweeteners, added to everything from pickles to soy sauce to beverages, including commercial soft drinks.

Logic would dictate, if logic and the American public's best interests ruled, that American food manufacturers would be jumping on this bandwagon too. Considering the well-established popularity of all things natural and health oriented, you may be wondering why you are not sipping on a Stevia-sweetened beverage right now. Suffice to say that economics rule. No surprise there. Stevia is legal in the US, but only as a nutritional supplement, not as a sweetener. To call it a sweetener would put it into the realm of the food additive. And food additives are the FDA's business.

The FDA's attempt to halt the use of Stevia began in 1986, with a raid on the warehouse of Celestial Seasonings, the popular tea brand. They were told they could no longer include Stevia in their herbal tea blends. In 1987, FDA inspectors began visiting other herb companies, telling them to stop using this "unapproved food additive". In 1991 came the official ban as the FDA declared Stevia "an unsafe food additive" and imposed an import alert.

Some in the health and natural products industry suspected collusion. The big pharmaceuticals who manufacture the artificial sweeteners like to play to win. Might Stevia's many advantages -- it's safe, contains no calories, and has health benefits, not risks -- threaten sales of laboratory-bred sweeteners? The Herb Research Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between the FDA and the manufacturer of NutraSweet regarding Stevia. The information was a year in coming, and identification of the company that instigated the FDA ban was blocked.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) commissioned its own professional review of the scientific literature on Stevia, peer-reviewed by several plant safety experts. They all agreed on Stevia's safety. The AHPA then petitioned the FDA to rescind the ban on Stevia, arguing that Stevia is a food with a long record of safety and not a food additive.

The FDA has all the studies, yet insists that there is insufficient evidence to approve Stevia as "generally recognized and regarded as safe." That leaves some wondering how it could be of questionable safety here in the US, yet of proven safety in Japan, where extensive research provided more sound scientific evidence of Stevia's safety than for most foods and additives, and convinced the Japanese government to approve Stevia for wide use.

While the FDA claimed that Stevia is a chemical food additive, the AHPA argued that the intent of Congress was never to regulate the natural constituents of food itself. The legislation was intended to apply only to chemical additives to food. Therefore Stevia, a natural plant used for food and medicine, and with a long history of safe use, should automatically be exempt from the lab tests required to test new food chemicals.

By this time the FDA's attempts to regulate herbs and nutritional supplements in general prompted the American public to write to their Congress. An avalanche of demand for continued freedom of choice and access to Mother Nature's medicine chest, the one humankind has used for millennia, resulted in the passing of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 (DSHEA). This prevents the FDA from regulating herbs and botanicals under the guise of "food additives."

It is under the protection of DSHEA that Stevia can be used in the US, but only as a nutritional supplement. (Interesting, the reverse is true in Canada; there Stevia is marketed only as a sweetener and not as a dietary supplement.) Consequently, US food processors cannot use Stevia as an ingredient in foods simply to sweeten as they can in Japan. Stevia and its extracts can be marketed only as dietary supplements, not as sweeteners, and any product listing Stevia as an ingredient can only be marketed only as a dietary supplement. Tea companies may once again add finely cut whole leaf Stevia to their tea blends, as long as they are marketed as health supplements. But your everyday herbal tea formulas cannot include Stevia, with the word "sweet" or "naturally sweet" on the box. Stevia is found in some meal-replacement bars, protein powders and chewing gums touted for their health benefits.

Perhaps the FDA reasons that if you cannot suppress the item itself, the next best suppression is information on that item. (Still hard to comprehend book banning in the land of free speech and free choice.) In 1998 the FDA threatened the Stevita Company of Texas, which imports Stevia, with legal action for distributing books and literature about their products. The FDA's Compliance Officer also faxed the Stevita Company a letter requesting the destruction of 2,500 books he considered "offensive." The books in question featured information on Stevia's history and use, as well as scientific studies.

Two recent reforms show promise. The FDA must now respond to applications within six months of submission, and must also accept foreign studies, if peer-reviewed and from reputable science institutes. Change is in the air.

Some in the industry predict the FDA will suddenly approve Stevia for wide use as a sweetener the moment the big players come up with their own patent-pending process of extracting the steviocides within the Stevia leaf.

Linda Sadler, President of Traditional Medicinals, another popular tea brand, points out that most of the health benefits on Stevia were conducted on the traditional use of the leaf, in its whole state. Once the food manufacturers begin to refine and isolate the steviocides, you loose some of the buffered balance and nutritional benefits of the whole herb.

The Japanese have demonstrated over the last three decades that even highly refined Stevia extract is still safe. And they use Stevia to full advantage for their health, refined and otherwise. Anywhere you find high fructose corn syrup (or the many names of those hidden sugars) you find Stevia in Japanese products. Popular too is some combination of Stevia and sugar, which maintains that real sugar taste while reducing the sugar, calorie, and carbohydrate count by up to 75%. An added benefit is avoiding the problems associated with other sugar substitutes, while maintaining that all important, 'all natural' status. Just what Americans need -- diet gurus are now telling us low-carb and low-cal should be joining low-fat if we are ever to succeed in the slimming of America. US food manufacturers of all categories ought to be lobbying for Stevia's wide use as sweetener.

In the meantime, I'm trying to stay away from processed foods. And a touch of Stevia sure helps replace a lot of sugar in everyday use.

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