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Herbal Alternative to Sugar, Aspartame, and Splenda: Stevia

Nutrasweet, Sucralose

You may have heard of Stevia. You may have wondered why should you care with sugar, and all the other sweeteners out there. Well, for starters:

Sugar makes us fat, so some health professionals say. And if you are a diabetic, sugar can be deadly. Sugar and other carbohydrates raise the blood sugar levels, and in a diabetic, to a level that the body cannot metabolize.
For awhile, it seemed like aspartame (NutraSweet) was the answer. Diet sodas and many other sugar-free treats are still made with aspartame. But health concerns like migraines, seizures, and possible increased risk of cancer may be causing the popularity of aspartame to wane.

Sucralose (Splenda) is the new wonder sweetener for those wanting to lose weight, and for diabetics, and other people on low carbohydrate diets. But according to what side of the health table you are one, Splenda is closely related to sugar or a pesticide. In fact, it retains properties of both. So there are growing health concerns with Splenda or sucralose as well. There have been reports of toxicity in lab tests; but the product has not been in general population long enough to have been extensively studied.

But since we all like sweets; and most of us want to be healthy; and years of conditioning has told us that our coffee or tea must be sweetened, the search for a healthy sweetener continues. Enter Stevia, an herbal sweetener. Some health food purveyors believe this is the natural and safe alternative to sugar.

What is Stevia? Stevia is an herb first found in the northern parts of South America. Stevia originates as a perennial shrub of the aster family. Reports surfaced in the early 1900’s of a leaf from Brazil that was as sweet as sugar. Stevia produces glycosides that taste sweet, but do not have calories. The main glycoside is called stevioside, hence the name Stevia.
Steviocide is now one of the major sweeteners used in Japan and Korea, and has been used in Latin America for years.

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Stevia is not recognized by the FDA as a sweetener, but it is allowed to be sold as a dietary supplement. Once you have purchased it as a dietary supplement, however, you are free to use it as a sweetener. Stevia cannot be marketed as an alternative to any other sweeteners, or even be marketed as “sweet”. But word of mouth is gaining ground, particularly in this era when low-carb and low-sugar diets abound. Most health food stores, and even the health food section of some grocery store chains carry Stevia.

The glycosides in Stevia are 250-300 times as sweet as sucrose (table sugar). Stevia’s sweetness is a bit slower to taste, however, and lasts longer on the tongue. Some people say there is no aftertaste to stevia; others say that in order to approximate the sweet taste of sugar (possibly trying for that initial “hit” of sweetness) the concentration of Stevia must be so high that a bitter aftertaste occurs. Others say that Stevia has a licorice-like flavor in high concentrations. Not everyone likes the taste of licorice, myself included. And licorice flavored coffee isn’t everyone’s well……..cup of coffee, or tea.

Stevia leaf is available in tea bags that can be used alone or as sweeteners. Stevia does taste sweeter in hot liquids than in cold ones. Recipes have been developed for baking with Stevia and those are designed to be used with ground Stevia, also called extract. A liquid sweetener is made by adding the powder to water, but stevia should be used sparingly in liquid form, because it is very sweet.

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Advocates of Stevia list such health benefits as lowered blood pressure; no rise in blood sugar; improved digestion; even increased gum health, since Stevia inhibits growth of bacteria that causes tooth decay. In all the centuries of use in South America, and the last 40 years of use in Japan and other industrialized countries, the FDA in the United States will not endorse the sweet herb. Some studies, admittedly flawed and poorly done, suggested possible negative side effects on lab animals.

Stevia is credited with actually regulating a body’s blood sugar, making it a useful additive for hypoglycemics as well as diabetics. It contains no calories, so it is a boon to dieters with a sweet tooth. 1200 drops (or 300 approximate servings) of liquid Stevia runs about $10; 1.9 ounces of Splenda (equal to 1 pound of sugar) is about $3.50; 4 pounds of granulated white sugar is about $1.50, so Stevia does come with a higher price tag. But it may pay off in decreased blood pressure, healthier blood sugar levels, and fewer consumed calories.