Thursday, March 03, 2011

Stevia : Health AND Economic Benefits

For any of you that like to avoid sugar, you may know what Stevia is: a particular herb/shrub genus of which one species, Stevia rebaudiana, is grown for its sweet leaves that makes for a great sweetener and sugar substitute.  As a sweetener, it is as much as 300x sweeter than sugar and has a negligible effect on blood sugar (blood glucose).  And, the sweetness lasts longer (from my experience).

So, as I sat here drinking a Zevia (brand) ginger root beer, I could not help thinking that perhaps stevia is part of the answer to how we (humans) can raise crops for ethanol/biofuels while also improving our health and lowering healthcare costs.  My thinking is this: as a society, we suffer at large from what is being described as a near-epidemic prevalence of diabetes (elevated blood glucose) and overweight individuals.... and, at the same time we are planting more and more cropland with crops intended to yield ethanol (from their sugars)... so, what if we address both issues at once.

How?  Stevia produces an incredible amount of sweetness with little volume (that 300x-sweeter-than-sugar fact comes into play here).  Can we perhaps raise enough Stevia to sweeten all our beverages on a small portion of the cropland that otherwise would have raised corn or sugar-cane to produce the sugar we currently use?  I do not know yields-per-acre (for stevia), but I find the thought intriguing.  Maybe we could raise enough sweetener-equivalent stevia (vs. sugar) on only 5% of the land that sugar-crops would take?  If so, that would leave 95% of the remainder for the pursuit of sugars for ethanol production.   The entire idea here has to do with preventing what is becoming a major concern: biofuels competing for food-sources and food-raising-acreage.

Next, if we were all to move to consuming stevia (instead of sugar) in our drinks, maybe as a nation/world we could suddenly see a huge downward shift in our average blood-sugar levels and our weights... this would in turn reduce blood pressure... and, both of these factors would lead to much lower health-care costs and complications from diabetes and obesity.

I see this as a win-win-win: better health, cheaper health care, more fuel-source acreage and perhaps cheaper fuels.


A little history lesson on Stevia...
And, please do not say stevia is somehow toxic or such... there is no proof of anything like that.  In fact, the ONLY thing that kept stevia from being main-stream here in the USA was the likes of Pepsi and Coca-Cola (which, you may be interested to know how these two mega-firms now control the two largest brands of Stevia-based sweeteners, "Truvia" and "PureVia" respectively, both of which use rebaudioside A derived from the Stevia plant.). In fact, coincidentally, Stevia was only approved as a food additive AFTER these firms came up with their own products and stevia marketing... prior to that, magically the government (FDA) stood up to protect us from stevia (i.e., protected some artificial-sweetener producers and highly-dependent-companies from competition by the likes of stevia).  

Now that Coke and Pepsi, coupled with Cargill/Merisant respectively, essentially now own the market for Stevia, the FDA's position, beginning in 2009 in the United States, is that it considers "Rebiana (rebaudioside A) to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)".  Gee, thanks for that corporate-protection, FDA!  All those years of chemicals like Nutrasweet were surely doing wonders for our health while stevia remained banned as a food-additive to protect "us" (yeah, sure.) 

Well, whatever... maybe it will lead us all to stevia as an option where otherwise we would never see it enjoy widespread use.  And, maybe this will somehow help our health, energy, and economic issues as a side-effect.


DED said...

It's a good idea. But, just as you noticed how difficult it was for Stevia to be approved by the FDA until it got corporate backing, it will face further battle from the sugar cane and corn syrup lobbyists (though the latter might just channel the extra corn into ethanol production).

Of course, you'll always have the purists and conspiracy theorists fighting it. But if a significant fraction were to switch, that would still work.

I'd prefer ethanol made from cellulose. The thought of farmers raising crops to feed our cars instead of feeding people (particularly the hungry overseas) strikes me as wrong. But maybe a balance could be struck with the acreage savings from Stevia.

On a side note, naturlose is trying to get FDA approval. It's in phase 3 trials right now.

Mike Eberhart said...

Ded, I had never heard of naturlose til you mentioned. I went digging on the Spherix website (the pharma/biotech that makes it). It looks as though naturlose (their *brand* of tagatose) has gone essentially nowhere in over 10yrs of trying to employ it as a diabetes drug, triglyceride-lowering drug, and more. It sure sounded interesting when I read about it, but sadly it looks doomed to perpetual lagging behind other options... perhaps they need better marketing department. I'd be interested in trying the stuff if it ever makes it out to the public, but for now, it looks unlikely. At least I have Stevia to hold me over for the time being :)