Monday, July 13, 2009


(More Plant Freak News, by request. Still knitting, still spinning, still in denial about move. Blah blah.)

Stevia is the new big-deal ooh-ah in industrial agriculture. It is a sweetener; not quite artificial, but not quite sugar either. Cargill is marketing it under the name "Truvia" and that's probably the state most of us have encountered it in (except for you wild people growing it).

Stevia is a shrubby little group of plants in the Aster family, meaning they are related not only to asters, but sunflowers, safflower, lettuce, artichokes, and, well, asters are one of the largest families of flowering plants, so there's a hell of a lot of them. Stevia in particular is native to central America, and has been used as a sweetener, medicine, and food, by the people in the area for time out of mind. It has been known in the west/European-settled world since 1899.

I was told in hort class that one of the things that really slowed the industrialization and widespread use of Stevia was the domestication of it. Supposedly, the plant is very sensitive to daily light cycles and won't grow well in areas with markedly different cycles. However, I can't find any mention of that quirk on the internet in articles I'm looking at, and all my botany books are in boxes in Ohio, so take it as you will.

The big, huge, raging controversy over Stevia is the same one that rages around all the 'artificial' sweeteners: safety. Rather, whether the sugar lobbyists are having the other sweeteners declared unsafe to cover their own asses. Stevia has been used for over thirty years in Japan with no ill effect, yet in 1985 (at that point Japan had been using it for fourteen years), the FDA declared it unsafe in the US. This prompted people to accuse the FDA of taking sugar industry money, and the snarling went back and forth until in 2008 they 'reviewed' the studies and decided that, no, Stevia was safe, after all.

Which makes a person wonder if the government cares more about our safety or corporate dollars, but that's a rant for another post.


The sweetness in Stevia is due to a glycoside called, originally enough, "Steviol glycoside". (Those silly chemists. When will they name something 'Fred'?) Glycosides are a big group of organic molecules that break down into a sugar and something else. For instance, cyanogenic glycosides break down into sugar and cyanide (these are the toxic chemicals in unroasted almonds and apple seeds and peach pits and the like). Get it? The steviol glycoside breaks down into glucose (the sugar) and steviol (the something else). Everyone is arguing over the safety of the steviol. I'll ease back on the chemistry, but steviol is a member of ANOTHER group of chemicals named diterpenes which are not the healthiest things in the world (diterpenes are the chemicals in coffee that make doctors tell you to cut back on it).

On the other hand, Stevia doesn't trigger the insulin whiplash that regular cane sugar does, is low-carb, and may help reduce blood pressure. So, as with so many things, I suspect the good and bad mostly balance each other out, and you should do that tiresome old grown-up thing and exercise moderation with the stuff, just like you would with 'real' sugar.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Or a perfect sweetener.

For those who were asking, Stevia is heat-stable, meaning you can bake with it. And it doesn't ferment; I assume yeasts can't break down the glycosides to get at the sugar, and they just sit there.

On a personal note, I've used Truvia to sweeten my morning tea (my mother-in-law uses it and I just finished drinking a big whack of it while staying at her house in Ohio) and it's kinda weird. There are mentions of it in the literature. Since there has to be a chemical reaction to break down the glycoside, the actual taste of the sweetness is kind of delayed. When I use it in my tea, I swallow the tea and THEN get a zing of 'sweet' in my mouth. Not unpleasant, but kinda strange. I'm thinking I need to try this stuff in cookies and see what happens. I'll keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

My mom, being a health-conscious person, was baking with stevia way back in the 80s before it got declared unsafe, and then she found another way to get it (Canada? Look, I don't know) and still baked with it.

Personally, I think the aftertaste quality is horrible. But if you put it in cookies with something else (my mom used rice syrup) it's not bad.

walterknitty said...

I wonder if the sugar industry is why stevia isnt allowed in the EU. Do you know what it is about Stevia that makes it so much sweeter than sugar?

Mandy said...

One of my co-workers used to use it in his coffee, so we all tried it - it never tasted sweet to me at all. I've yet to find a non-sugar sweetener that I can stand the taste of, anyway. (I had another co-worker who would put two - count 'em, 2! - packets of Sweet-n-Low in one cup of coffee, WITH flavored Coffee-Mate creamer! The sweetness was enough to make me shudder)

Anonymous said...

CYANIDE IN unroasted Almonds??? I eat those things every day, sometimes in large quantities. =:O

They sell them in Target that way, unroasted and unsalted that is.....CYANIDE?????

Anonymous said...

Okay,I know your article is basicly on Stevia and I went bonkers on the almond cyanide thing cause I eat raw almonds with their skin on..... So I went looking and this article :

says that it is the pink flowering almond, the bitter almond that will make you sick. Both kinds have Pre cursors for Cyanide, but the white flowering almond is healthy for us to eat, even the raw,skin on kind :) only a pre cursor for cyanide ;)

Bells said...

i've been eyeing it off in our health store for a while, wondering. I reckon as you say, moderation, is the key. If I used to it sweeten my coffee and in a bit of baking now and then, I hardly see that constituting over use!

emily said...

"Rather, whether the sugar lobbyists are having the other sweeteners declared unsafe to cover their own asses."

Hmm. And high-fructose corn syrup comes into this picture how? I had the vague impression that sugar was already taking a beating from that corner, not to mention aspartame, etc. Artificial sweeteners have always made me uncomfortable, but stevia sounds interesting.I know too many diabetics already, & providing soda for a reception...well, I've had to cave & get the diet stuff (ick).

Amy Lane said...

Sort of like the bleep delay on a swearing comic, right? I don't know-- Stevie-a is the closest scientific thing I've heard of to 'Fred'

dts said...

Julie, you make my day!! am going to try stevia/truvia (if I can find it) chew my raw almonds w/renewed respect, & return to stalled knitting w/fresh hope (I stall when uncertain). love!

ellen in indy said...

one question:

is it pronounced STEH-vee-uh or STEE-vee-uh? if it's the latter, it would make me think of my 1st x. no tnx.

(same for x2, but considering that "SpongeBob SquarePants" was named for that one, pronunciation is no problem.)

Anonymous said...

It's not that it was the sugar lobbyists who hoped for Stevia to be declared unsafe, but the artificial sweetener lobbyists whose business would be taken if another artificial sweetener, stevia, would join the market.