The Long and Winding Road

For the past two decades, the big three players, saccharin, aspartame and sucralose have fought to a kind of stalemate. But now a new player, with years of repression, comes in full-force, hoping to shift the balance of power in the world of sweeteners.

 

A lot of people find it hard to believe that such an ordinary leaf tastes so sweet, and even more unbelievable is that such a wonderful plant has been concealed and obscured from public eyes. Indeed, to a lot of first timers, this plant seems too sweet to be real, a small leaf from the stevia plant is packed with intense sweetness, and the best thing is, it contains absolutely no calories.

 

Botanically, stevia is a perennial shrub which belongs to the Asteraceae or Chrysanthemum family. Originally the plant grew wild in the mountain ranges of Amambay in Paraguay and also in some subtropical parts of Brazil.

 

The Guarani Indians, natives of Paraguay, have been using the shrub for thousands of years. Caa-ehe, as they call it. Stevia is typically consumed for medicinal and nutritional purposes. But even after thousands of years of Guarani consumption, it still remained undiscovered. The first person to scientifically publish a paper about the sweet herb was the director of Paraguay College of Agriculture, Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, in 1899.

 

As the ball has started to roll, a year later, another scientist, Dr. Ovidio Rebaudi made the first complete chemical study. Soon after, P. Rasenack of Germany broke the first scientific barrier by isolating the sweet element from stevia leaves. He then published a profound chemical analysis in 1909.

 

The news then spread like wildfire. In 1921 under Denmark’s International Chemist Union, the ‘Stevioside’ name was born. A decade later, a French chemist R Lavielle conducted a safety test of stevia on animals with excellent results. After these studies, the stevia name was redefined to ‘Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni’ giving credits to the first two who introduced stevia to the world. Prior to the name the plant was called ‘Eupatorium Rebaudianum’.

 

In 1954, the Japanese started to show interest in stevia and that led to the commercial planting of the shrub in Paraguay. After 1960, the stevia plant was planted in Southern Japan and in 1975, a complete scientific safety test was presented by Japanese scientist, Dr. Yoko Yama. By 1977, the Japanese had completed their first commercial stevia extraction and stevia products started to be used by consumers in Japan. In the same year, the artificial sugars saccharin and aspartame were banned. Seeing the growing interest by the Japanese in this natural sweetener, the Chinese also began the growing of stevia. By the early 1980s, China had started to commercially produce stevia products.

 

Stevia has long been popular as a sweetener in most big countries, but for years, the United States Food and Drug Administration has considered it as an unapproved food additive. In 1995, after pressure from the American Herbal Products Association, the government only allowed its sale as a  dietary supplement, not something that could be used as an ingredient in food. To many, the reason why the American government reacted in this way was clear – could it be that since Stevia occurs naturally, it requires no patent to produce? And no rights to patent registration means no monopolization.

 

The FDA did not favour stevia despite many scientifically-proven and cross-culture researches. Could it be that the FDA was trying to protect big corporations and cartels that were monopolising and dominating the lucrative artificial sweetener industry for many years? Even today, the sugar, aspartame and saccharin businesses are controlled by big cartel groups which have very influential political powers.

 

Since stevia grows naturally, it is a gift from mother nature to every individual. Just about anyone can grow them easily in their balcony or garden, now just imagine if more people are growing stevia in their homes as a source of healthy, non-caloric sweetener. The multi-billion artificial sugar industry will be dwindling down! Who needs fake stuff when you can get the real one easily?

 

Speaking about the “multi-billion industry”, some large food and drink manufacturers, after sensing the important of using natural sweetener, began investing in research and lobbying the government. Big corporations such as Cargil and Whole Earth Sweetener Company, began selling stevia-based sweeteners. Other big companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and Merisat (aspartame producer) started to use stevia extract in their products. Finally, this prompted the FDA to agree in December 2008 that rebaudioside A, an extract from the leaves of the stevia plant, is safe to be used as a sweetener in food and beverages.

 

The good news for us is that many food cooperation such as PappaRich and Coca-Cola in Malaysia already adapting stevia as an alternative to sugar. But the question is would Malaysian consumers really bother about a natural sweetener as compared to the artificial sweeteners they have been accustomed to, based on certain taste profiles? Well, compared to real sugar which already has a bad reputation for causing all sorts of diseases stevia is calorie-free, 200 to 350 times sweeter than sugar, is non-toxic and is stable when used in baking and cooking. And its goodness does not stop there; it has other therapeutic benefits such as regulating high blood pressure, inhibiting microorganisms and is used as oral tonic for tooth decay, as a digestive system soother, nicotine and alcohol repressor and also for its benefits as skin care.

 

Most importantly, stevia has one distinct advantage over the rest, because it comes naturally from a plant, and it can be legally termed as a natural sweetener, and that alone is enough to allow food manufacturers to tap into two powerful marketing trends at a time: Naturally sweet and zero calories.

 

 

IN THE LEAVES

The sweetening element of the leaves is known as ‘Glycosides’, and is purely absent of calories. The sweet Glycosides are not metabolised by the human body, hence it does not affect calorie intake. It means this miracle plant is completely calorie free, does not affect the blood sugar level and it cannot be fermented by bacteria or yeast.

 

Besides the sweet Glycosides, the leaves also contain fibre, phosphorous, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, flavonoid, zinc, iron, vitamin C, vitamin A, protein and carbohydrate.

 

The sweet element of Glycosides can be divided into two parts: Rebaudioside (the sweeter pleasant taste) and Stevioside (sharper bitter sweet taste). Stevioside inhibits the biggest part of the Glycoside and can be extracted by purifying them from the leaves into a white powder. With further purification, one can obtain various levels of Rebaudioside, the tastier part that has a pleasant sugary taste compared to Stevioside.

 

Primary Stevia Applications:

• Diabetes

• Obesity

• Plaque retardant

• Hyper activity

• High blood pressure

• Carbohydrate craving

• Tobacco and alcohol craving

• Hypoglycemia

• Indigestion

• Skin toning

• Oral and dental health

• Bio activator for plant

• Biofeed for animals

• Bio fertilizer for soil

 

Malaysia is definitely not behind in the stevia bandwagon. For 25 years, Dr. Irfan Unal who is founder of Stevia Sugar Corporation Sdn Bhd has been pioneering stevia research and has gone as deep as developing a special breed of organically grown stevia that can suit tropical (Malaysian) climate. This special breed is also capable of yielding a higher content of Rebaudioside that gives a more pleasant taste.

 

A variety of stevia product developments have also taken place, whereby almost 45 types of products have been completed for personal consumption and for the food, agro and farming industries.

 

With extensive study, Dr. Irfan Unal has also developed a better extraction method to efficiently produce various intensities of Rebaudioside A (namely StebianA TM) and Stevioside. We are proud to say that in Malaysia, we have a stevia expert specialising on its broad range of applications.

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About Author

Dr. Irfan Unal

Dr. Irfan Unal is a herbalist, consultant on herbal medicines and cosmetics, and also a specialist on stevia. He has a Ph.D. in entomology from National University of Malaysia. He later became interested in the studies of herbal medicine, the healing properties of plants and their benefits on human body. He is currently the director of Herbalwise Holdings and Steviasugar Corporation, where he produces herbal medicine, cosmetic as well as formulates stevia based products.

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