Most of the sweeteners that are commonly used in many countries are artificial products. But for centuries, the South Americans have been using a plant, stevia, as a natural sweetener. It is said to be 300 times sweeter than sugar but at the same time is low on calories.
Japan was perhaps the first country outside South America to recognize the medicinal benefits of stevia and began cultivating the plant extensively. The Japanese went into commercial production of natural sweeteners from stevia in the 1970s. They use the plant sweetener widely in food products and in Coca Cola and other soft drinks, according to Wikipedia.
Following Japan’s example, some other countries (including India) have taken up growing stevia on a large scale and processing the plant for obtaining the natural sweetener, which is considered to be good for those who suffer from diabetes, obesity and hypertension.
The stevia products, it is claimed, contain no aspartame, sugar, maltodextrin, artificial sweeteners or saccharin. The no sugar, low calorie properties of stevia make it an obvious tool for controlling diabetes. Reportedly, it is useful in the management of hypertension and obesity as well.
Like saccharin and aspartame, the artificial sweeteners, which were suspected of containing carcinogens, stevia too had its share of controversies, particularly in the United States. One view is that the sweetener industry was behind the move against this time-tested herb. Finally, Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of stevia as a dietary supplement but not as a food additive! There appears to be a strange twist in this – if the label says ‘dietary supplement’, the natural sweetener is safe; if the printing on the package reads ‘food additive’ it may be unsafe!
Anyway, more and more people in Japan, South America, India and several other countries are switching to stevia, the natural sweetener, because of its perceived efficiency in handling diabetes, obesity and hypertension. No adverse effect seems to have been reported among the many millions who use this natural sweetener.
There would be, however, no harm in checking with your doctor before using stevia as a food additive.