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The Sweet Secret of Stevia

The original intention of this article was simply to inform people about stevia, a great natural sweetener that I've recently become a fan of. It has neither calories nor carbohydrates, is suitable for diabetics, and doesn't cause tooth decay. Information about something that can deliver all of that makes enough of a story in itself, but a little research into the history of stevia uncovered quite a bit of intrigue that I wasn't aware of when I first chose this topic. In the name of keeping the public ignorant about stevia businesses have been raided, books have been destroyed, and laws have been created making it illegal to tell consumers that a product is sweetened with stevia. What is this herb and why don't the powers that be want you to know about it?

Stevia rebaudiana is an herb that has been used for centuries by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay both as a sweetener and as medicine. It was "discovered" by Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, the director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion, who was exploring the jungles of Paraguay. He first heard of the herb in 1887, and encountered a live plant for the first time in 1903. He later said of this herb, "the sweetening power of kaa he-e [the native name for the stevia plant] is so superior to sugar that there is no need to wait for the results of analyses and cultures to affirm its economic advantage...the simplest test proves it."

In 1908 the first stevia crop was harvested, and plantations began to spring up. In a memo written in the 1920s, American Trade Commissioner George S. Brady said he was "desirous of seeing it placed before any American companies liable to be interested, as it is very probable that it will be of great commercial importance." If its "commercial importance" was so great, why did stevia never catch on? A 1913 memo from the official public scientific laboratory in Hamburg, Germany may hold a clue where it states, "specimens received are of the well-known plant which alarmed sugar producers some years ago."

In 1960s Japan, there was a popular movement against adding chemicals such as artificial sweeteners to food. Manufacturers there were on the lookout for a natural alternative to sugar, and stevia was introduced to the Japanese market in 1970. It is currently used in many products there (including cola, desserts, and gum) and makes up 40% of the Japanese sweetener market.

Stevia is about 300 times sweeter than sugar in its natural state, and much more so when processed. Its medicinal uses include regulating blood sugar, preventing hypertension, treatment of skin disorders, and prevention of tooth decay. Other studies show that it is a natural antibacterial and antiviral agent as well. Stevia is actually good for you! On top of that, it is calorie and carbohydrate free. Stevia is a great sweetener choice for diabetics, those watching their weight, and anyone interested in maintaining their health. So why haven't most people heard of it?

In the late 1980s an "anonymous firm" lodged a "trade complaint" with the FDA about stevia when it started to surface in the United States. One company using stevia was the Celestial Seasonings herbal tea company. They were ordered by the FDA to stop producing tea "adulterated" with stevia. Traditional Medicinals, another tea company, had their inventory of stevia teas confiscated during an unexpected FDA raid and were told the tea would be burned.

Why did the government treat stevia like a controlled substance? FDA documents call stevia a "dangerous food additive" even though the safety of stevia has been widely tested for many years by scientists in Japan. The FDA will not reveal who made the "trade complaint" (despite the Freedom of Information Act) though many suspect that it was the makers of the artificial sweetener Aspartame (aka "Nutrasweet") trying to fend off competition, as the artificial sweetener is very profitable. Was the government protecting the health of its citizens or that of big business?

If that isn't bizarre enough, the FDA also ordered a Texas-based distributor of stevia supplements to destroy three books on the subject. They were told that an inspector would be coming to oversee the destruction of these materials! This spurred outrage from the media, the ACLU, and members of the public who heard about the attempted censorship and the FDA decided not to go through with it. The FDA was willing to violate the first amendment (with a good old fashioned book burning) to keep stevia under wraps!

An interesting contrast: while no one in Japan has complained about any stevia related health problems for the past thirty years, over 75% of food additive related complaints in the US are about Aspartame, which is supposedly safe.

In 1995 the FDA reversed their decision to ban stevia, but only halfway. Stevia can now be sold as a "nutritional supplement" but not as a sweetener in the United States. This is also the case in the European Union, and the World Health Organization is pressuring other countries to follow suit. Essentially, this means you can find it at many stores in the vitamin department, but the label can't tell you what the product is actually for. As absurd as this is, the good news is that stevia is available for those who know about it. It is generally carried in health food stores and there are many retailers online as well. Stevia is available in several forms, including concentrated powders and liquid extracts. Read labels to see what other ingredients you are getting, as some contain fillers and/or alcohol. I generally use stevia in its natural form, either fresh, dried, or powdered.

Like other natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, stevia has its own special flavor and does not taste exactly like sugar. You may not like the way it tastes in coffee, but find it great with tea. Unlike artificial sweeteners, it doesn't break down with heat, so you can learn to cook with it too.

I hope you find stevia to be as wonderful of an herb as I do, and that the FDA comes to its senses soon!

Resources and further reading
information about Stevia including the herb's interesting history and how the FDA has tried to keep the public from finding out about it.

Sweet Nothing (cached)
an article about the FDA's seizure of stevia from tea companies and the allegations that the people who make Nutrasweet were behind it.

FDA Officials Order Books Destroyed (cached)
the story behind the FDA's censorship campaign against stevia.

FDA Import Alert: Stevia (cached)
the text of the FDA's import alert about stevia, which calls it an "unsafe food additive."

Could Stevia be the Answer to Diabetes Treatment? (cached)
an article from an M.D. Some diabetics have written me unpleasant email (and threatened to "report me to the authorities") for posting this one, please realize it's just an FYI!

Stay Healthy The Stevia Way (cached)
another article written by a doctor.

The Many Benefits of Stevia (cached)
an article about the use of stevia as a medicinal herb.

Stevia Helps Pancreas Release Insulin -- Helpful for Diabetics (cached)
according to this article, stevia is not only an excellent sugar alternative for diabetics, but it can be used as an effective treatment for the condition.
recipes and information about how to use stevia.

Stevia, Nature's Natural Low Calorie Sweetener (cached)
historical, chemical, and agricultural information about stevia from the Government of Canada.

Marketplace: Stevia (cached)
an article about stevia and its commercial potential.

Aspartame is by far, the Most Dangerous Substance on the Market That is Added to Foods (cached)
An article written by an M.D. about aspartame and why it should be avoided.

An Opposing Viewpoint:

Stevia: Not Ready For Prime Time (cached)
For some reason, the "consumer watchdog" group Center for Science in the Public Interest is speaking out against stevia. The article cites a few studies that have found stevia to be potentially harmful, but doesn't mention those that have found it to be beneficial. This seems suspicious to me, but read the article and decide for yourself.

Books the FDA tried to suppress:

The Stevia Story: A Tale of Incredible Sweetness & Intrigue
a great piece of investigative journalism with information about stevia and the suppression campaigns around it.

Stevia Rebaudiana : Natures Sweet Secret
information on the plant's history, botany, pharmacology, usage, safety, recipes, and home-growing information.

Sugar-Free Cooking With Stevia: The Naturally Sweet & Calorie-Free Herb
a newer edition of the stevia cookbook the FDA tried to destroy, including information about what happened from the authors' perspective.

Selected Abstracts from the National Library of Medicine's PubMed:

Antihypertensive Effect of Stevioside in Different Strains of Hypertensive Rats (cached)
this study found that steviosides can lower blood pressure in rats.

Stevioside Induces Antihyperglycaemic, Insulinotropic and Glucagonostatic Effects in Vivo: Studies in the Diabetic Goto-Kakizaki (GK) rats (cached)
this study found that stevia was beneficial for diabetic rats.

Bactericidal Activity of a Fermented Hot-water Extract from Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni towards Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Other Food-borne Pathogenic Bacteria (cached)
a study that shows stevia's antibacterial effect, especially against dangerous E-coli bacteria.

Analysis of Anti-rotavirus Activity of Extract from Stevia rebaudiana (cached)
this study found that stevia has antiviral effects against the anti-human rotavirus (HRV).