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Articles-Stevia

Stevia as a Flavor Enhancer

There are three distinct traditions of stevia use. The first is for flavor enhancement; the second is as an herbal tea. The third is medicinal. The primary impetus for the development of stevia science was the discovery by Bertoni that the herb possessed an extraordinary sweetness. A good quality leaf is estimated to be 30 times sweeter than cane sugar, or sucrose.

Sweeter of the future

The active constituents of stevia are considered by the world's leading food scientists as the "sweeteners of the future." Therefore, every new development in the area of stevia research is anxiously awaited and thoroughly analyzed when it appears. Countries in which the currently used artificial sweetners are on the brink of being banned are desperately trying to find new, safe, non-caloric sweeteners. And in other countries, firms that hold exclusive rights to currently used sweeteners are extremely fearful of the advent of new, safer sweeteners, over which they will have no control. For these firms, the emergence of a totally natural, non-patentable sweetener is the ultimate horror. Stevia, whether these firms like it or not, will one day have a dramatic impact on all countries of the world. The necessary forces simply need to be properly aligned, the raging fury of mega-monstrous companies firmly bridled by caring governments, and the supply of stevia raised to meet the enormous demand.

Used in hundreds of foods

Steviosides and rebaudiosides are the principal constituents of diterpene glucosides with differing sugar molecules attached, as found in the leaves of the stevia plant. Extracted, they are currently being used as sweetening agents in several countries, including Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Uraguay, Brazil, and Paraguay. In Japan, commercialization of stevia was very rapid, beginning with the ban of artificial sweeteners during the 1960's. In 1970 the Japanese National Institute of Health began importing stevia for investigation, and by 1980 it was being used in hundreds of food products throughout the country.4

300 times sweeter than sugar

This is remarkable progress, considering that as recently as 1921 scientists were just getting around to naming the main constituent (stevioside), and the molecule wasn't even accurately described until 1931, when scientists reported it to be a white, crystalline, hygroscopic powder, approximately 300 times sweeter than cane sugar.5 And it wasn't until 1955 that the earlier work was replicated and extended.6 By 1963, the complete chemical structures of the active molecules of stevia were finally worked out.7 To jump from there to the status of a major food sweetener by the mid-1970's was a truly astounding feat, one that would have simply been impossible in the United States or Europe. Today, the Japanese, who cultivate stevia extensively in their own country, are anxious that other countries adopt the use of the plant so that they might export it. The ironic thing is that the Japanese are not as encumbered with weight problems as the rest of us; they are not, therefore, adverse to using copious amounts of plain old sugar. Yet they have access, in the form of stevia, to one of the best sugar substitutes.

Best Stevia from Paraguay

While most of the attention focuses on the steviosides, research has shown that the rebaudiosides are actually much better tasting; there are just fewer of them. One rebaudioside in particular, Rebaudioside A, appears to be far superior. Its sweetening power is estimated to be 30% higher than that of stevioside. Efforts to genetically select for this constituent are underway in Japan. However, according to some sources, the plantations maintained by the Guarani in Paraguay contain perhaps the best tasting natural whole-leaf stevia available. Efforts to remove stevia from its native habitat and cultivate it in foreign soils may be primarily responsible for the off taste that characterizes non-Paraguayan stevia. The best stevia may indeed still be obtainable only from parts of Paraguay under native cultivation. Interestingly, a recent report showed that none of the stevia used in Japan is imported from Paraguay. Of the 1000 tons used in Japan in 1982, 300 were produced in Japan, 450 came from Continental China, 150 from Taiwan, 100 from Thailand and 50 from Korea, Brazil and Malaysia. It is said that the Paraguayans will not sell to Japan. Much, if not most, of the stevia sold in the U.S. is imported from China and other non-Paraguayan sources.

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