Stevia: The Best Natural Sweetener, or Just Another Fad?
By Marc Courtiol
July 28, 2011
What if there were a natural substance that had no calories, was sweeter than sugar, and did not cause any of the health problems associated with sweet foods? What if, moreover, this substance actually had health benefits, containing numerous beneficial minerals and antioxidants? Many people might assume that this magical sweetener was too good to be true, but there is a real substance by the name of stevia that actually fits this description. You have probably heard of stevia by now, but many people still have misconceptions about what it is, exactly.
What is Stevia?
Stevia is a genus of over 200 herbs of the sunflower family native to North and South America and now grown throughout the world. Although the herb has been available in some countries for many years, it has had a tough regulatory path in the U.S. In the late 80s, when the herb was becoming big in places like Japan and South America, the U.S. FDA received anonymous complaints about Stevia’s potentially negative health effects. As a result, the herb was banned and kept off U.S. store shelves for years.
In hindsight, further studies have shown that the negative claims about stevia were untrue. It does not cause genetic mutations, cancer, or any of the other things. Who provided these libelous claims is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt that makers of other sweeteners have good reason to fear stevia. In any case, the FDA eventually reversed its decision, and stevia is now freely available.
Today, stevia-derived sweeteners are made by extracting certain elements from the herb and putting them into liquid or powdered form. Powdered stevia has incredibly high potency and can substitute for sugar, in much smaller amounts, in many recipes, as well as in coffee and other drinks.
Individual reactions to stevia tend to vary. For some, the sweetener is incredible; it tastes as good as or better than sugar, and it mixes well with other flavors. For some other people who try stevia, probably a minority, it has a slight licorice-like flavor that can be off-putting. Reactions are highly subjective, so you never know whether you will like stevia until you try.
Stevia’s health benefits
The best thing about stevia is that, unlike other non-sugar sweeteners such as aspartame, it comes from natural sources and is not synthesized in a laboratory. Sure, most consumer stevia undergoes a rather complex preparation process before hitting store shelves, but it is still natural in origin. Today, we cannot even say this about many products sold as sugar.