on Aug. 13, 2007
Stevia rebaudiana originates in South America, where it has been used for centuries as a sweetener and herbal remedy.
If you're like me, you glug away at cans of sugar-free fizzy drinks while simultaneously worrying that the artificial sweeteners might not be that much better than sugar itself. So the news of a plant-derived sweetener with claimed health-promoting effects would be good news.
The plant, called stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), originates in South America, where it has been used for centuries as a sweetener and herbal remedy. It is said to have no lingering aftertaste and is already popular in Asia, having being used for decades in countries such as Japan.
The extract of the two-foot high (60 centimetre) shrub is up to 300 times as sweet as sugar but low in calories. It has apparently been found by researchers at the University of Asuncion in Paraguay to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and an anti-bacterial qualities. It can also be baked to 200°C (390°F), unlike some artificial sweeteners, making for guilt-free cakes and candies.
Currently, farmers in Paraguay have dollar signs in their eyes as Coca Cola and Cargill have revealed plans to develop and market the plant's extract.
While stevia is grown elsewhere in the world (China being the biggest producer), Paraguay's climate allows three crops a year, and the nation hopes to be able to cash in. But they have a big hurdle to clear before the lucrative US market starts sending its dollars their way. Despite its use in other countries, stevia is currently classified in the US as an "unsafe food additive".
The head of Paraguay's stevia chamber of commerce claims the US sugar lobby is trying to block it. You can see why, if stevia extract is indeed a healthy. low-calorie, good-tasting sweetener. But Coca Cola and Cargill are powerful allies.
As I sit here, my jaw aching from recent root canal surgery – a direct result of sugar abuse – I for one hope stevia is as good as its promoters say it is.