A Natural Alternative to Sugar
It's a non-caloric herb that is said to have a sweetening characteristic at two hundred times more than that of the regular sugar. The plant is also known for its other names such as "honeyleaf", "sugarleaf", and "sweetleaf", and as "Estevia" in South America. The herbal plant has been used as medicinal and sweetening ingredients by the Guarini Indians of Paraguay for over 1,500 years. In Asia, and has been in wide use for a number of decades in Japan.
Although requiring more water than is necessary, Stevia compensates for this by being able to grow even in poor soil. In fact, as a member of the chrysanthemum family, you can grow this plant even in your own garden. This sweetleaf plant is ideal for an organic garden because of its own insect repelling qualities; it does not require pesticides.
Unlike sugar cane, the plant requires little or no processing at all. This is because the leaves are already potent sweeteners by themselves. As a natural sweetener, it is used as a whole leaf, ground leaf, in liquid extract or powder-form. However, caution should be applied when taking it in liquid form, as it may contain chemicals that were used to get the liquid extract. The leaves by themselves are said to be sweeter by 20 to 30 times over than sugarcane, but be warned that it has a slight bitter or licorice-like taste when taken in its leaf form. However, it loses the licorice-like or slight bitter taste if taken in its refined form
Refined sugar made from its leaves contains no calories, has low carbohydrate, and low sugar sweeteners despite its sweetening ability. Accordingly, it will only take a teaspoon of refined stevia sugar to match a cup of refined conventional white sugar in terms of sweetness.
The Problem with Regular Sugar and Other Sweeteners
Sugar cane undergoes a lot of processes to achieve the final product. The processes even make use of harmful chemicals that can harm the environment.
It requires burning tons of sugar cane, resulting to high emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Although the sugar cane plants absorb carbon dioxide, the amount that was absorbed cannot offset the emissions given-off by the burning sugar cane and by the machinery that was used to harvest and process it.
Unrefined sugar crystals are originally brown because it contains molasses. Those crystals are then bleached with chemicals like phosphoric acid or sulphur dioxide to get the appearance of white sugar. It then undergoes more drying and vacuuming process to achieve better quality.
A lot of manufacturing processes means that it requires more energy in processing. If you would think that brown sugar is better because it is not bleached, think again. It is much worse because it is just the regular white bleached sugar with the removed molasses, mixed back in.
Aspartame on the other hand may not be an environmental hazard but once inside the body it becomes a health threat because its methanol content breaks down as formaldehyde and formic acid, which are known carcinogens.
Another sugar alternative in use is saccharin whose sweetening ingredient is phthalic acid, which is the same ingredient used for plasticizers and for surface coatings. In fact, saccharin is banned in some countries.
FDA's Stand on Stevia
Despite its likable eco-friendly qualities, stevia has gained U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration's (FDA's) approval only as dietary supplement in the USA, while Eastern Europe, still does not allow its sale.
During the mid 1980’s, the FDA branded this sweetener as an “unsafe food additive" with hints of indicating that it is a narcotic substance. FDA’s disapproval of this sugar plant was so vehement, to the point of ordering the confiscation of any propaganda promoting stevia as a better sugar alternative.
Today, this natural sweetener can now be sold and bought but FDA has not lifted its classification of this sugar as an “unsafe food additive". Up to this date, there are no records or evidences to prove that stevia has any side effects. Nevertheless, those who intend to use it for the first time should seek proper medical advice.
Why the FDA refuses to recognize stevia as a likely healthy alternative to sugar still remains a mystery, since there are still no known studies that support its benefits or alleged side-effects.