Stevia leaves – Origin & Usefulness

Sedentary lifestyles, daily stress, and high calorie food have led to an increasing presence of what are commonly referred to as ‘life style diseases’ – diabetes and blood pressure. Diabetes in particular is affecting people of all age groups and the WHO has warned about the disease growing to epidemic proportions in India. While various reasons including those mentioned above are causes, a sugar-generous diet is definitely one of them.

In addition to exercise and stress management, controlling the daily intake of sugar is crucial to managing diabetes. Of course this approach could also aid in prevention of the disease unless there are other compelling factors such as heredity that could tilt the scales.

Several artificial sweeteners have been introduced into the market including Saccharin, the oldest. The other popular product is Aspartame. In recent years, Stevia is becoming increasingly popular as a natural sugar substitute.

Stevia is a sweetener and substitute to sugar prepared from the extract of the leaves of a plant species Stevia Rebaudiana, native to Brazil and Paraguay. The name came from a Spanish botanist and physician Petrus Jacobus Stevus (Pedro Jaime Esteve) a professor of Botany at the University of Valencia in the 16the century.

The leaves have been in use for over 1500 years by the Guarani people of South America who referred to it as ka’a he’ê (“sweet herb”). In Brazil and Paraguay, they have been widely used for years to sweeten local teas and medicines.

Purified leaf extract

The sweet-tasting elements naturally present in Stevia leaf are called steviol glycosides. Each leaf has several steviol glycosides but the focus is on the eleven steviol glycosides due to their profusion. Each glycoside has a specific taste profile and intensity of sweetness.  A purified Stevia leaf extract can consist of one steviol glycoside or several different glycosides, which could be up to 400 times sweeter than sugar. Steviol glycosides are stable when heated, pH-stable, and cannot be fermented. What makes Stevia a good choice is the fact that the body does not metabolize Stevia’s glycosides and therefore contain zero calories.

When it comes to taste, Stevia has a slower onset and longer duration when compared with sugar and a few of its extracts could have a bitter aftertaste, particularly at high concentration.

Only high purity Stevia extracts are approved by leading regulatory bodies in various countries. As for the legal status of Stevia, it is different in different countries. In Japan, people have been widely using Stevia as a sweetener for decades. In the United States, high-purity Stevia glycoside extracts are in the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) category since 2008 and permitted for use as ingredients in food products. The EU has approved the use of Stevia additives in 2011.

Stevia products are used in thousands of food and beverage products in various countries worldwide including juices, flavored milk, teas, soft drinks, yogurts, baked goods, cereals, salad dressings, sauces, confectionery products and of course, as a table top sweetener.

With people getting more aware about health, body weight and calorie intake, the demand for natural, zero calorie sweeteners is bound to grow and contribute significantly in meeting their health and fitness objectives.

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