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Stevia, The Better Sweetener
For almost a century science has been seeking the holy grail of sugar alternatives. From chemical sweeteners made in the laboratory to the sweet sugar alcohols extracted from fruits and vegetables, the pursuit of the perfect replacement may very well have been found in the stevia plant.
Stevia is a genus of over 200 species of plants, native to Central and South America. Stevia rebaudiana has been used for centuries to sweeten beverages and foods and for medicinal purposes.
Introduced to Europe by Swiss botanist, Antonio Bertoni in 1899, it wasn’t until 1931 that the chemicals providing the sweetness were isolated by two French chemists. Eight sweet chemicals have since been identified with the two main families (steviosides and rebaudiosides) making the greatest contribution to the taste. Referred to as steviol glycosides, they are 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose, heat stable, PH stable and non-fermentable. Stevia extracts containing stevia glycosides are permitted as food additives and sweeteners in many countries around the world as they have been shown to be a safe, natural sweetening option.
Since November 30th 2012, steviol glycocosides, have been approved as food additives in Canada and are used in a wide range of products, including beverages, breakfast cereals, bakery products, desserts, fruit and nut spreads, confectionery, and as table-top sweeteners.
A variety of extraction and manufacturing techniques have been employed to reduce the licorice-like flavour and bitter aftertaste of earlier products, so stevia is gaining popularity as a sweetening alternative due to its intensive sweetness, diversity and functionality. As stevia is extremely heat stable, it can be used in many cooking and baking recipes; although, stevia does not caramelize or crystallize like sugar; so, it may not be suitable for some baking applications. It is suitable for diabetics and any individual looking for a safe sugar substitute as it has no glycemic (blood sugar) impact and provides zero calories per serving as well. Numerous health claims have been backed up by scientific research. Stevia’s blood pressure lowering effects have been documented, (PubMed 14693305) as have blood sugar stabilizing effects in diabetics (Elsevier – Science Direct).
A well vocalized criticism and concern about many stevia sweeteners on the market today is that manufacturers are not using the complete spectrum of sweetening components found in the stevia plant, but isolating small fractions. The typical stevia extract on the market may contain only the steviosides or rebaudiosides, while stripping away the other sweeting molecules. Some brands contain only rebaudioside A which only makes up about 28 % of the sweet glycosides found naturally in stevia leaves. There are companies that continue to offer stevia extracts with most of the naturally occurring sweetening molecules intact whether in a powder, liquid or tablet format. Consider whole-leaf or full-spectrum stevia extracts if you are looking for a more natural product.
Quick Facts About Stevia
• Stevioside extracts are typically 200-300 times sweeter than other natural flavours.
• When combined with other foods, stevia is said to enhance the true flavours of that recipe.
• In its raw, natural state, the stevia leaf contains over 100 phytonutrients.
• Stevia does not raise blood sugar levels.
• Stevia is carbohydrate and calorie free.
• Stevia will not promote tooth decay.
Marva Ward is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP) and works for Puresource as the National Product Educator for the NOW brand of supplements in Canada.
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