Created on: February 24, 2013
In many countries, stevia has become well-known in recent years as a natural, low-calorie alternative to sugar. However, it has been used for centuries in South America and was first introduced to Europe and the rest of the world in the eighteenth century. It did not catch on, however, because of the concerns of some experts that it is not as healthy as it first appeared. Despite its recent increase in popularity, there are still a number of health concerns, although the Food and Drug Administration has given one component form of stevia
Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status.
Where does stevia come from?
Stevia, the sweetener, comes from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana. Native to Paraguay and Brazil, it was discovered to be a natural sweetener and was used by South Americans to season food and tea. According to Wise Geek, scientists in France isolated the compound, stevioside, in the leaves that make it so sweet. The leaves are often highly refined to release the sugar, but it is also possible to extract the sweetness from the leaves in the form of a syrup or powder.
What is it used for?
Stevia is a natural sweetener and is very low in calories, which means that it is often used as a sugar replacement for those wanting to lose weight. However, it does have other medical uses. As Web MD explains, it can also be used as a treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure, heartburn and to lower uric acid levels.
How safe is it?
The main reason that stevia is not as widely used as it might otherwise have been is simply because of the safety risks linked with its usage. Although the FDA has given it ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ status and it is used in many countries, including Japan, Russia and Israel, there are still concerns that its side effects have not been properly researched.
Katherine Zeratsky, writing for the Mayo Clinic, explains that the FDA has only given a purified component form of the plant GRAS status. This form is called rebaudioside A, commonly known as Reb A. Whole leaf, or crude stevia extracts have not yet been approved because of the potential health risks. These include concerns about the effect on blood sugar control, the kidneys and the reproductive and cardiovascular systems in general.
According to Eatingwell.com, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group for consumers, believes that the FDA was premature in giving rebaudioside A GRAS status and didn’t give it vigorous enough testing. The Center does not suggest avoiding rebaudioside A completely, but does believe that consumers should know that usual testing guidelines have not been followed.
Until more dependable research has been carried out, it is probably advisable for those wishing to give stevia a try to look at the list of ingredients to see if Reb A is included rather than trying those forms that the FDA has not given GRAS status.
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