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Sweetening Herbal Teas "Since Ancient Times"...the controversy behind Stevia

Sweetening Herbal Teas "Since Ancient Times"
...the controversy behind Stevia
by Jennifer LB Leese

Stevia is a sweet tasting herb that claims to have remarkable beneficial health qualities; however, it is an herb that has been surrounded by much controversy in the United States.

Recorded Beginnings

The Guarani Indians had known about the unique advantages of kaa he-he (a native term, which translates into "sweet herb")--for centuries. Stevia is a small shrub. The Guarani Indians used the wild stevia leaves as a sweetener, a digestive aid, a tonic, and a topical aid in wound healing.
The Spaniards chronicled the widespread native use of stevia in historical documents, which are preserved in the Paraguayan National Archives in Asuncion. They noted that native peoples have been sweetening herbal teas with stevia leaves "since ancient times."
In the late 1880's, a botanist named Moises Santiago Bertoni went in search of the herb in the eastern forests of Paraguay. When he found the herb he announced his discovery of the "new species" in a botanical journal and was credited with "discovering" stevia.
He wrote, "In placing in the mouth the smallest particle of any portion of the leaf or twig one is surprised at the strange and extreme sweetness contained therein. A fragment of the leaf only a few square millimeters in size suffices to keep the mouth sweet for an hour; a few small leaves are sufficient to sweeten a strong cup of coffee or tea."
Stevia is often labeled as having many favorable and exciting health benefits and as "completely non-toxic". The herb is nutrient rich, containing substantial amounts of protein, calcium, and phosphorous, as well as sodium, magnesium, zinc, rutin, vitamin A, vitamin C, and over 100 phytonutrients.
American Trade Commissioner George S. Brady presented stevia to the USDA in 1921, stating that it was a "new sugar plant with great commercial possibilities."

What is Stevia and How does it Taste?

The uniqueness of Stevia is largely due to its complex stevioside molecule that is composed of glucose, sophorose and steviol. A second compound called rebaudioside, present in Stevia, also contributes to Stevia's sweetness. This high-quality herb has a taste that is like no other and has been described as "very sweet". The sweetness of Stevia is much different than the sweetness of other natural sweeteners such as sugar, or even artificial sweeteners, and it is delicious.
Many feel it is a helpful aid in weight loss due to the fact that it contains no sugar, no calories and has been shown to reduce craving for sweets and fatty foods.
In researching, the Hiroshima University School of Dentistry and the Purdue University's dental research group have both found that stevia to "retard plaque accumulation on the teeth and suppress bacterial growth that causes cavities."

Purchasing Stevia

Stevia is available in several forms, the less refined is the most healthful. It also comes in dried leaf form, Stevia leaf powder, tea, or as a liquid tincture, extract, or concentrate. The leaves and powder are light to medium green and are not water-soluble. Stevia in this form is approximately 15 to 30 times sweeter than common table sugar (sucrose). The liquid forms made from the whole leaf are very dark in color and come in different purities and strengths depending on the type and manufacturer. Read labels; additives are sometimes used in these products, and some are made with alcohol, some with water. Recently whole leaf stevia has become available in tablet form.
The refined forms of stevia come in a white powder or a clear extract. The steviosides do not retain all of the health benefits of the unrefined stevia products and is generally 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. These refined Stevia extracts are considered safe and preferable to artificial sweeteners or sugar.
Like other natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, stevia has its own special flavor and does not taste exactly like sugar. You may not like the way it tastes in coffee, but find it great with tea. Unlike artificial sweeteners, it doesn't break down with heat, so you can learn to cook with it too.
The Controversy
While the American public has waited for a safe artificial sweetener to be developed, citizens from South America, Japan, China, Germany, Malaysia, Israel, and South Korea and many other countries have for centuries enjoyed this natural sweetener.
However, during the mid-1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration labeled stevia as an "unsafe food additive", even though no ill effects have ever been attributed to it. Adamant about their position, the FDA, (even though stevia can now be legally marketed as a dietary supplement under legislation enacted in 1994), strictly prohibits any mention of its possible use as a sweetener or tea.
"Sweetness is big money. Nobody wants to see something cheap and easy to grow on the market competing with the things they worked so hard to get approved, " states Rob McCaleb, president and founder of the Herb Research Foundation.
Quotes and Comments Regarding Stevia
"...as a scientist with over 15 years researching the safety of stevia and of many other plants used as food or food ingredients, I can assure that our conclusions in these various studies indicate that stevia is safe for human consumption as per intended usage, that is, as a sweetener."-- Mauro Alvarez, Ph.D., Brazil
"Stevia leaf is a natural product that has been used for at least 400 years as a food product, principally as a sweetener or other flavoring agent. None of this common usage in foods has indicated any evidence of a safety problem. There are no reports of any government agency in any of the above countries indicating any public health concern whatsoever in connection with the use of stevia in foods."-- Gras affirmation petition submitted on behalf of the American Herbal Products Association, April 23, 1992
"There are more than 2,000 folders in my office, each with a collection of facts and fables about various medicinal plants. In one of these folders there's an old wrinkled envelope dated 5/19/45. In it are old leaves of Paraguay's..."sweet herb," stevia rebaudiana. More than 40 years old, one leaf of stevia will still sweeten a cup of coffee or tea enough to satisfy my sweet tooth...I predict rough sailing with our FDA for this non-nutritive sweetener. I hope it will make it."-- James A. Duke, former chief of Medicinal Plant Research of the USDA; The Business of Herbs, November/December, 1986
"Stevia has a political problem."-- Rob McCaleb, president Herb Research Foundation.

For the Record

I tasted stevia during my research of this article. First, I did the simple "put-a-drop-on-the-finger" taste-test. The sensation was pleasant and very much like sugar with no unpleasant aftertaste.
Mixed in water with about five drops of stevia, I found it just as sweet as sugar, but not sweeter to one teaspoon of sugar in the same amount of water. But then again...I'm also a sugar monster.
Remember, everyone's taste buds are different, and stevia is considered, to some, as an acquired taste.
Stevia is available at most local natural food stores.

Stevia story resource credits:
* "The Stevia Story: A tale of incredible sweetness & intrigue" by by Linda and Bill Bonvie and Donna Gates
* The Story of Stevia: www.stevia.net
* Stevia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevia
* The Sweet Secret of Stevia: www.practicalhippie.com/stevia.htm



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