Stevia’s Sweet Truth
Jill (the Real Food Forager) recently wrote a fascinating, in-depth review of stevia.
She charts stevia’s history, weighs the sweet plant’s pros and cons (especially as applies to diabetics) and reviews several of today’s most popular stevia sweeteners. It’s a great read for people trying to find a healthier alternative for refined sugars, but don’t want to be fooled by clever marketing.
Known by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay as kaa he-he or sweet herb, it has been used for centuries to sweeten herbal teas, medicinal potions, or simply chewed for the sweetness. As civilization encroached upon the Guarani, the use of stevia spread throughout Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. By the 1800′s the entire region was enjoying it. This begs the question, are the modern, commercial versions as good as kaa he-he?
It took an Italian botanist by the name of Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni to identify, analyze and give Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) it’s western name. Dr. Bertoni had been studying kaa he-he for many years. Because of the difficulty in getting around the wilds of Paraguay to collect it, he thought it was very rare. It turns out, it was very widespread if you knew where to look. In 1908 the first stevia crop was harvested and by 1913 stevia was widespread.
Marketability of stevia
Back in the early 1900′s interest was raised about the commercial potential for marketing this unique herb as a sweetener. In 1921 stevia was presented to the USDA by American Trade Commissioner George S. Brady as a new sugar plant with great commercial possibilities.
It seemed like a great product because of its highly sweet taste (300 times sweeter than sugar), nontoxicity, very low processing requirement, and safety for diabetics. Why didn’t stevia gain popularity and realize its great commercial potential in the United States?
Most likely because the powerful cane sugar industry felt it would be a competitor and they were able to keep it at bay.
Discovery of pure stevia extract
In France in 1931, two chemists isolated the most prevalent of several compounds that give the stevia leaf its sweet taste — a pure white crystalline extract they named stevioside.
During the 1970′s, the Japanese found a use for stevia because they strictly regulated and even banned artificial sweeteners, in an attempt to keep chemicals out of their food supply. They soon discovered the ideal replacement for both sugar and its synthetic substitutes — refined stevia extracts. It was used as a tabletop sweetener much like we use aspartame (a neurotoxin) and saccharin (a carcinogen) here. They also incorporated it into a variety of foods such as ice cream, bread, candies, pickles, seafood, vegetables, and soft drinks.
In India, stevia is known as Gulvel/Amrutvel and has also been used in their Aruvedic culture and medicine.
This article originally appeared on RealFoodForager.com. It is partially posted here with permission of the author.
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