What would you say if I told you there was an artificial sweetener that was natural and had been used for hundreds of years?
Yeah right? Would that be your response?
OK first let’s define artificial sweetener as not being sugar or fructose. That is something that gets that taste bud to fire off with way fewer calories if not zero, this can still be a natural compound found in nature. The trick of artificial sweeteners is when you hear about how many time sweeter the stuff is than sugar. The press acts like it is a magical quality, but it just means you need that much less of the product to fire off the those persnickety taste buds. The way that “artificial sweeteners” work is that they do one of two things during digestion, first they are not digestable so they pass through the body hence zero calories, or second there is such a small amount that the caloric intake total is small.
As an example, Aspartame is 200 time sweeter than sugar which is of the second variety because it is digested. There is so little needed that they beef up the packet with: dextrose with maltodextrine, so you can actually see what you are using. Try measuring out 1/200th of a teaspoon for your coffee and see if you don’t agree that bulking it up is a good idea. So now, I was a little leary about my previous revalation that Aspartame actually broke down to methanol, that is wood alcohol used for drag racing fuel and is poisoness. But now I am confident in what I found. Right here on the equal websiteit tells you that it breaks down to methanol. They of course try and cover up the fact it is a big deal by saying it is naturally found in meats and fruits, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you would have to eat something like 42 steaks to get the same amount from 3 cans of soda. I will search for that at some point, but sadly, not right now. Because this post is about Stevia (You had no idea did you).
What is Stevia? It is a genus of plants, someone said related to the daisy family, and there are about 150 such plants in the genus. But we are interested in one in particular. It is a bush that grows native in South America called Stevia Rebaudiana. It has been used in yerba mate drinks and medicinal drinks for centuries by the native people in Pauraguay and Brazil. The leaves when used as a sweetener are 30-45 times sweeter than sugar. Some scientists decided to study it and found that there are two glycosides that are causing the sweetness. They were named stevioside and rebaudioside.
For those of us that don’t know what the heck a glycoside is, it is a compound that is made up of a sugar molecule and another part. The purpose in nature is to store that other part (some chemical that performs a specific task) until needed later. The sugar and it hold on tight to each other and the chemical, when needed for its job, is released by introducing it to an enzyme which breaks off the sugar part and lets the chemical do its thing. This is natures way of saying, ok this chemical here might do some bad things to part of the body/plant/whatever so lets make sure it is locked up where it can do no harm until we get it where we need it. The nice thing about them is that we don’t have the enzyme that breaks it apart so we don’t digest it and the chemical remains locked up along with the sugar, but lucky us the molecule fires off those sweet taste buds like nobodies business. When setvioside is extracted it has 300 times the sweetness of sugar. So it needs to be bulked up so it is easy to measure. There are two companies, Coca-cola and Cargill, that have an FDA application in to get this stuff approved. They will brand it as Rebiana and call it Truvia and hope to have it available in 2009, they even set up a website for it . So as for the name to compare to something meaningful here are the equivalents:
Nutrasweet / Equal / Aspartame
Rebiana / Truvia / rebaudioside A
Now the thing about this stuff is that they are claiming that rebaudioside A is the best tasting component of the stevia plant. There are many other companies that are selling stevioside or crude extracts as a dietary supplement. The Crude extracts from the plant apparently have a medicinal taste and this will be sold and called “stevia plant extract” or something to that effect. The pure stevioside is available when it is refined and not sold as the crude form, and it can also be found bulked up with other things like soluable fiber for example. According to Coca-Cola even the pure stevioside is not the best tasting though they have something to sell me. Other’s selling the stevia describe it’s sweetening as something that is slower to come on but lasts longer, to me that tells you something is up. I wouldn’t think you have to describe sweet to anyone so I am a bit leary of taste here. So the main issue with stevia is going to be to come up with good tasting version, maybe certain extracts will do the trick, like Coca-Cola is doing, or maybe it will only work as they add their own little bit of flavor. I will be trying some and will update once I do.
Here is what I bought for $36 with shipping to try it out:
Item: 101 – Steviva 1.3 OZ. WT. in 8.0 OZ Bottle / Quantity: 1
Item: 102 – Steviva Blend 1 lb. Bag / Quantity: 1
Now for the fun part. Government regulation is always fun. You can buy it as a dietary supplement and it is legal to do so in the US (I just did it so it better be legal). The reason being that it is natural like many of the herbs and plants so can legally buy and sell this one is no different, it just can’t be labeled as a sweetener. You can even grow your own plants and use the leaves or other extractions yourself. Now the fun part I was talking about is there are many countries where it is being used already. Japan has been using it for 30 years. It’s what they use in their diet Coke right now. That’s right 30 years. In fact, Coca-Cola when they announced their own version of sweetener they are trying to get approved by the FDA, said they are developing their own drinks to use it and sell them in the 12 countries that already allow it to be used as a sweetener. If it is in their Diet coke in Japan already I would say it is going well.
Once approved I think we are going to see this stuff everywhere. It is already being exported from China and you know they can ramp up production for the US in just 1 year if that, so we come online and there is already a lot out there available it should hit the markets fast.
Now for a little more science, here is the report from the European Commission. The crude extract of the plant contains 8 diterpene glycosides:
rebaudiosides (A,B,C,D,E) and
Because of their amounts found in the plant and their high multiples of sweetness as compared to sugar, only stevioside and rebaudioside A are considered to give the sweet taste when a crude extract is tasted. The problem is that different studies are being done, so although there is a lot of testing going on many times it is only part of the plant. Either a crude extract is studied or the two important parts stevioside and rebaudioside A are tested alone.
So what is a diterpene? Diterpenes are a specific type of terpene that are composed of 4 isoprene units, anything that is made of isoprene units ( C5H8 ) is a terpene. C20H32 would be part of the chemical symbol for a diterpene. Terpenes are very common in the world and are parts of most all plants and animals. For example, Vitamin A is a diterpene. Terpenes are commonly found to be the key part of essential oils as well. So the stuff is common (even though all the chemical sounding names might seem scary) and we just need to find out if it is safe for humans to consume. I could not find a study that has not been overturned with further studies to show that it is unsafe. So although that doesn’t mean it is safe for sure, the early signal is in that this stuff is going to be the holy grail of the artificial sweetener world. And by early I mean, yeah Japan has been using it for 30 years and people in Paraguay and Brazil for hundreds of years. If there were a long term problem associated with it’s use we should be hearing about it in Japan any day now.
Like I said I will report what I find with the stevioside I just bought. I expect that is will have a bitter slightly bitter aftertase, although not like I might find in a crude extract which I did not buy and have not tried. I am excited to be able to drink my low-cal chai tea once again…