We do not use any concentrated sweeteners on the TQIDiet. And this includes giving up stevia. Students are a bit dismayed by this at first because stevia is a sweet-tasting herb that comes without calories and does not raise blood sugar levels. And what possibly could be the problem with that? In fact, zero calorie compounds tend to trigger weight gain by creating blood sugar lows and/or by throwing metabolism off. Animal studies suggest that zero calorie foods make no sense to a living system and as a result end up causing metabolic problems. The concentrated sweet taste of stevia makes naturally sweet foods taste bland and helps perpetuate cravings for far less healthy foods. And finally, the type of stevia most frequently used is not a ground up green leaf of an herb. There really is little “natural” about most stevia in commerce.
According to some, stevia is a plant with a long history of use as a sweetener: While not definitive, my old Mexican and South American herbals report it as a potential treatment for colic and wound care but make no mention of its use as a sweetener. There are more recent reports of a potential use as a medicinal herb in hypertension but these uses are quite different than adding a pinch of leaf to your coffee for sweetness or a somewhat larger pinch to make your desserts taste as sweet as ever. Given that traditional peoples are not know for eating much in the way of sweets, it seems quite unlikely that the plant has a long well-established use as a sweetener.
Today stevia is essentially a “natural” low calorie sweetener used to help people feel better about eating or drinking things they likely would be better off without. And most are not buying dried plant leaf for use as a sweetener. Few consumers give any thought to how the sweetener in the jar or bottle they are using made it from that little green leaf into a white powder or liquid although it must involve refining and bleaching. The best selling form of “stevia” is not the whole plant, it is rebaudioside A, right now viewed as the “sweetest, least bitter” of the steviol glycosides present in stevia leaf. And yes, stevia is much sweeter than sugar but, unlike sweeteners such as white sugar, stevia glycosides also have a bitter after taste. There are at least 9 other steviol glycosides with Reb D likely to be the next “big” form of “stevia.”
Most of the stevia glycosides are only present in tiny amounts in the plant. Our stevia products thus require increasing amounts of land, water, and energy to grow enough stevia to provide enough of these compounds and most of the plant is actually wasted. Some companies are working on specialized breeding to increase the various glycosides in the stevia plant but increasingly the preferred production method will be microbial fermentation. While this may evoke images of sauerkraut, kimchee, and a variety of other healthy fermented traditional foods this type of fermentation is quite different.
Cargill and a Swiss company Evolva are jointly working on creating “nature identical” glycosides, as is Stevia First Corp. While the plant only makes tiny amounts of the concentrated sweets, the plant, of course, uses a gene to control the manufacture of those glycosides. The relevant microbial fermentation involves taking that gene, silencing a yeast’s gene for fermenting sugar into alcohol and CO2, and replacing it with the gene for the desired “reb.” The yeast with the “right” genes will now make “stevia” for you to put in your coffee and salad dressing.
Natural? Not in my book. Safe? Most say it is, that these modified yeast will never escape to start producing stevia instead of causing your bread to rise or show up in some other unexpected place. Nor will these modified yeast share their new genes with other microbes. So they say and they may be right. Ultimately though isn’t it time to reconsider the wisdom of using a product that is not good for you and that will help keep you hooked on concentrated sweet tastes? A product that either uses precious land and water resources or instead uses GM processes to produce isolated glycosides that have no history of use in the amounts now being consumed?
Why not go healthy, sugar- and stevia-free instead?
Photos: starr-120613-9646-plant-Stevia_rebaudian a-leaves-Walmart_Nursery_Kahului
By Starr Environmental
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