Stevia rebaudiana is a member of the sunflower family and is native to tropical regions of North and South America. It has been used by the people of Paraguay and Brazil for over 500 years, for medicinal purposes and even as a sweetener. And today, it is grown throughout the world, especially in Asia. Japan is the world’s largest consumer of Stevia.
Stevia as a Sweetener
The sweetness of Stevia is most often from an extracted compound called Rebaudioside A, and the extract sold on the market comes in a different form than standard sugar. The extract is usually a very fine powder, and its taste is described on Wikipedia as having “a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar …”
Stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, and yet is zero-calorie. Because of this, the plant has been seeing increased popularity due to a higher demand in low-carb, low-sugar diets.
Medical research has even shown that it is beneficial when used instead of sugar for diabetics, and can be used as an aid for obese people to lose weight.
Is It Safe?
There has been no sign of adverse effects of Stevia in humans, has been used for hundreds of years, and has been used all around the world for at least 30 years, with no negative side effects reported. But, experiments on lab rats have shown mildly toxic results. However, the method by which these results were garnered is being disputed.
While there are even a few studies that suggest Stevia is a mild mutagen, the bulk of all studies show no side effects at all. There are even studies that show benefits. For instance, a study with lab rats has shown that Stevia can increase sensitivity to insulin, can promote insulin production, which could help reverse diabetes. There is also the possibility that Stevia can reduce hypertension (Hsieh), but the research is still in preliminary review.
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Though Stevia was originally banned in 1991 after receiving an anonymous industry complaint, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has labeled Stevia as “Generally Recognized As Safe”. The original complaint was controversial because of its anonymity and the FDA’s subsequent decision to ban Stevia and label it as an “unsafe food additive”.
The complaint wasn’t about the product’s safety, but was a complaint by the anonymous company that another company, called Celestial Seasonings, was using Stevia.