Most medical experts would agree that one of the best ways to improve your health is to reduce your sugar intake. Doing this can help decrease one’s chances of getting diabetes and being overweight or obese—both epidemics in this country with adults and children alike. Consider these facts:
- Since 1985, childhood diabetes has increased ten-fold. The Centers for Disease Control predicts that if this trend continues, one out of every three children born beginning in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
- About 2/3 of U.S. adults are overweight or obese; while up to 30% of children are overweight, compared to 4% in 1982. In the past 25 years, obesity in children has more than doubled, affecting at least 15% of school-age children!
The average American ingests over 150 lbs. of sugar annually! That represents a whopping 30- 5 lb. bags of sugar each year! In reality, much of this sugar is in the form of high fructose corn syrup prevalent in foods because it’s much cheaper than sucrose, common tabletop sugar.
While some might think that artificial sweeteners are the best solution to curb our love affair with sugar, others disagree. Artificial sweeteners do eliminate the high calories and carbohydrates associated with sugar, however many believe that these alternatives are unsafe and are actually worse than sugar. So is there yet another alternative available?
If there were an all-natural sweetening ingredient that’s been used safely for over 30 years in other parts of the world for food applications and diabetes management with no ill effects, would you be interested? Well, such a substance does exist and it’s called stevia.
Using stevia, an all-natural alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners, is gaining increasing popularity worldwide. Stevia rebaudiana, its botanical name, is derived from a plant in the chrysanthemum family grown primarily in South America and Asia. The plant’s intense sweetening qualities are complex molecules called steviosides that are glycosides made of glucose, sophorose and steviol. These are what make stevia up to 300 times sweeter than sugar and non-caloric. These glycosides do not get absorbed into the body; rather simply pass through leaving no calories. The Japanese have used stevia in food applications from soft drinks to soy sauce since the 1970s and recent reports indicate that stevia commands up to an incredible 50% share of Japan’s commercial sweetener market. Moreover countries like Brazil use stevia for the treatment for diabetes.
The advantages to stevia are numerous, so the following are the most frequently cited. In its pure form, it’s non-caloric and doesn’t affect glucose levels, an advantage for diabetics and hypoglycemics. Also, it has no carbohydrates or fat, so it’s great for dieters, especially those watching carb intake. Unlike artificial sweeteners, high quality stevia has little aftertaste when measured properly. It has no known side effects like some chemical sweeteners and has been safely consumed around the world for decades. Actually, stevia’s original medicinal uses date back centuries ago with the Paraguan Indians who mixed the herb in teas for its healing properties. Since stevia is sugar-free, candida sufferers can use it. Health conscious consumers take advantage of stevia to avoid sugar and help prevent diabetes and obesity. The website www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, under the direction of the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine and National Center of Biotechnology Information, offers abstracts from stevia studies that indicate it may also aid in lowering blood pressure and regulating glucose levels.
The average consumer may not have heard about stevia until recently because of its current FDA approval as a dietary supplement, not as a sweetener or food additive. Numerous studies worldwide tout its overall safety and health benefits. As of this writing, about ten countries, including Japan, Paraguay and Brazil have approved stevia as a sweetener and/or food additive. The FDA approved the use of stevia only as a dietary supplement since 1995. This means stevia companies must maintain a fairly low profile, thereby limiting its distribution and marketing potential. For instance, health food stores and natural grocers must place stevia in the supplements section, not with the natural sweeteners for fear of the FDA mandate. The stores cannot promote the “sweetening” qualities of stevia, even though that’s why it is purchased.
Stevia can be used as a healthy substitute in most sugar applications, including baking and cooking since it is heat stable. The average conversion rate of sugar to stevia is one cup of sugar per one teaspoonful of pure stevia extract. Clearly very little stevia is needed to replace sugar. When used in beverages, stevia dissolves quickly and easily and, depending on your taste preference, only a pinch is needed. The real challenge to using stevia effectively is knowing what ingredients to use in a recipe to make up for the volume and consistency lost with the elimination of sugar, especially in baked goods. That’s why it’s a good idea to find stevia cookbooks with proven recipes when you’re starting out. You can also find some free recipes online. Finally, stevia is not appropriate in recipes that require sugar caramelizing or browning like meringues.
Stevia is available in many forms including liquid, teas, plants/leaves, pure white and green powdered extract and powdered blends with different fillers. In baking, the pure extract is used primarily and, in some cases, the liquid variety. Stevia can be purchased at health food stores, natural grocers, food coops and online. Currently a big push is underway to expand distribution into grocery stores, vitamin shops and drugstores.
Due to the number of factors that can influence your stevia purchase experience, the following guidelines provide some good advice:
- You often do get what you pay for; don’t buy based solely on price; taste and quality matter.
- Higher % of stevioside doesn’t necessarily make the stevia better; you can find excellent tasting stevia with this key plant composition at even 80%.
- If you purchase the green powder for its slightly higher health benefits, it will usually have more aftertaste than the white powder.
- The product’s country of origin doesn’t matter; it’s farming, manufacturing and processing experience and techniques do.
- At this time, stevia production is not standardized, so taste and strength do differ depending on brand.
- Use a minimal amount; can be overwhelming if you add too much initially; add more later if needed.
Widespread use of sugar and artificial sweeteners are at dangerous levels. The negative side effects and controversial studies regarding their proposed safety suggest that another alternative is desirable and necessary. Stevia may be a welcome option for those who want to ingest more natural ingredients with no known side effects, no calories, no carbs, no fat, no affect on glucose levels and no sugar or artificial sweeteners. Stevia may also be advantageous in the prevention and treatment of diabetes, obesity and other health conditions. Check with your doctor before including stevia to your diet. If he/she doesn’t recommend it, politely ask why to see if the reason is satisfactory to you.
For more information on stevia or to try free stevia recipes, visit the web or www.steviadessert.com and cookbooks like Sensational Stevia Desserts by Lisa Jobs, $19.95 retail price, Healthy Lifestyle Publishing LLC, Copyright ©2005. The book is available at various online sites including www.steviadessert.com, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, health food stores or you can order it at your favorite bookstore.