Israel’s Ministry of Health approved the use of powdered stevia herb as a natural “table sweetener,” says Israel Solodoch, director of Nufar Natural Products, Israel’s main supplier of stevia-based products. Known in Central and South America for centuries, the sweet leaf has gained popularity in Japan, Europe and the U.S. Japan is reputed to sweeten up to 40% of its sugarless products with stevia.
Now FDA- approved, and undergoing a process that removes a slight aftertaste, stevia is expected to become big business in Israel, replacing aspartame and similar sweeteners in soft drinks, candies, and baked goods.
Much as we love nutritious honey, it does have calories. The body responds to honey as to any other sugar – a problem for diabetics. On the other hand, stevia’s sweetness adds no calories to your diet. Being water-soluble and heat-resistant, you can bake with it. Up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, a commercial tea bag-sized package will sweeten 5 cups of tea or coffee.
Stevia even has health benefits; admittedly, different ones from honey. According to a report from the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the plant has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial properties. It’ll even lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
The green question is, are chemicals involved in processing the leaf to make the convenient powder or tea bag? Ofir Avsalander, spokesperson for Nufar Natural Products, told us in a phone conversation that stevia does undergo chemical processing to eliminate its slightly bitter aftertaste. He wasn’t able to say which chemicals, how they’re used, or if a residue remains on the product, but is investigating these issues now. We’ll update as the information arrives.
The sweet leaf already comes with a few health cautions.
- It may prevent carbohydrate absorption, which in vulnerable people like pregnant women and children, may lead to weakness from reduced energy metabolism. Although not discussed in the medical literature, another issue rises to mind: the health of the unborn baby, who would not receive vital nutrients if his mother’s carb intake isn’t converting to energy. Fetal starvation happens when the mother’s nutrition is inadequate. Unless a pregnant woman has diabetes, we recommend that she sweeten her life with honey.
- As stevia is known to lower blood sugar and blood pressure, people taking medication for regulating those must use the herb with caution. That is, extra-careful monitoring of blood levels.
- Short-term side effects have been reported with stevia use, including numbness, gas, bloating, nausea and dizziness. However, these unpleasant effects are said to vanish after two weeks’ use.
- Consuming large amounts of stevia has caused genetic mutation in lab animals, which increases cancer risk. While it’s not known if humans may affected the same way, it’s assumed that only absorbing huge amounts of stevia every day would produce those results.
It sounds like stevia’s health issues are relatively minor. And it may be the answer to the sugar-addiction problem that haunts so much of the population. All the same, there’s no doubt that all medicinal herbs are drugs, to one degree or another. That’s why they’re medicine. While commercial stevia products may be a boon to dieters, it’s well to consider all sides of your health picture when investing in a package.
And remember – you can grow the living plant easily. We’ve bought it in the local shuk and put it in a sunny window, where it grows sweeter by the day.
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Photo of stevia plant in the shuk by Miriam Kresh.
Miriam also blogs at Israeli Kitchen.