By Christine Hronec
Stevia has grown to become a well talked about topic in the natural-food industry as one of the most popular natural food sweeteners on the market today. Consumers want to use it, stores want to sell it and manufacturers want to include it in their food and cosmetic products. Unfortunately, very few people know anything about stevia, the various forms in which it comes, how and when to use it or which forms offer the maximum benefits. Prior to 1991, stevia was in widespread use in the United States and several other countries.
In Japan, it was developed by a complex refining process into a sweetener called stevioside -- a white powder 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar ,which has a 47 percent market share in the Japanese commercial-sweetening industry. A few companies are marketing liquid stevia extracts or concentrates. The water-based concentrates are superior to the alcohol-based extracts because they usually contain a greater concentration of the nutrients essential to the healing activity. Virtually all research performed with whole-leaf stevia has been done with water-based concentrates. Also alcohol nullifies much of the plant's healing activity on the skin and the scalp. The effectiveness of a water-based concentrate depends on its purity and the ratio of leaves to water used in the preparation process. The more leaves to water, the better and more effective the final product.
In all of its current forms, stevia has a taste unique to itself. With all of its sweetness, there is a bitter taste when the leaf, extract or stevioside powder is placed in the mouth. This bitter taste disappears, as does the slight licorice flavor, when the product is appropriately diluted in water or another liquid prior to use. The bitter taste comes from the leaf veins. The majority of the veins must be removed during the cut-and-sift process, or the delightfully sweet taste is overcome by a strong bitterness.
Whether in dry-leaf or concentrate form, stevia has the wonderful ability to help the body regulate blood sugar. Several researchers have reported that, in these natural forms, stevia seems to correct both high and low blood sugar. Other scientists have stated that stevia appears to lower blood pressure, but does not seem to affect normal blood pressure. Stevia leaves and the water-based concentrate are sold in some South American countries as aids for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia and high blood pressure.
Research has demonstrated that stevia liquid concentrate inhibits the growth and reproduction of harmful bacteria and other infectious organisms, including those that are a problem for the food and cosmetic industries. Stevia also inhibits the growth of the bacteria that cause gum disease and tooth decay, and in many countries it is used in oral-hygiene products. Because such products are not yet allowed by the FDA, many Americans simply add several drops of stevia concentrate to a small amount of water, swish thoroughly in the mouth and swallow. This ability of stevia to destroy infectious organisms may help explain why stevia users report a lower incidence of colds and flu.
Less known, but no less remarkable, is the ability of water-based stevia concentrate to help heal numerous skin problems, including acne, seborrhea, dermatitis and eczema. It also has been observed that placing it in cuts and wounds brings more rapid healing without the scarring. This will cause a severe stinging for several seconds, but is followed by a significant lowering of pain. Physicians have reported using stevia concentrate to heal psoriasis and burns, while others have reported that it is extremely helpful in healing various lip sores. The stevioside mentioned earlier, although more intensely sweet than the leaf or concentrate and certainly safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics, does not retain any of the healing properties described above. It is far too sweet to be eaten by itself, but it is in high demand by consumers who want a noncaloric sweetener.