Stevia, An Herbal Profile
It has been a while since I wrote an herbal profile down since starting the project early in the year! The thing I am learning quite quickly when it comes to being a gardening blogger is that you either have to plan everything a year in advance so you can get photos or play the waiting game... Because I am a next level procrastinator, the waiting game seems to be my best option.
On Mother's Day weekend, Jill and I decided to stop at a new-to-us local greenhouse here in Wellman called Reha's. We were looking for herb starts, something that I swear by for herb gardens over starting seeds. While starting seeds for herbs allows you to have complete control over the plants' health (organic over conventional, etc) it also means that it may be a while before you get to harvest anything off of that plant, especially if it's a perennial herb (lavender, oregano, lemon balm, etc). I like transplants because I get to harvest the same year that I planted it as well as continue to enjoy it in years to come!
They have some of the most diverse selection that I have seen around here in the past few years! We found all sorts of fun things like pineapple sage, chocolate mint, and a new herb that I had heard of but didn't have a lot of knowledge on... stevia. My first thought immediately went to the finale of Breaking Bad when Walter puts Ricin in Lydia's stevia packets. Sorry if I spoiled that for you, but it's been a few years, right?! Of course, the herb stevia, while it holds the origin of the powdered version, is entirely different in chemical makeup and is entirely unprocessed.
Stevia, a bushy green herb, originates in South America namely Paraguay. The first knowledge we have of it comes from the Ancient Guarani who discovered the plant over 1,500 years ago. They learned that the green leaves had an extremely powerful sweet flavor and would use them for various things such as sweetening mate, softening skin, healing blemishes and wounds, smooth wrinkles, reduce blood sugar, and aid in digestion and issues of the pancreas. They called is "kaa-he-he" or "sweet herb."
Later in 1887, Italian Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni claimed he had discovered an medicinal plant which he called Stevia Rebaudiana and introduced it to the modern world at the time. It was quickly taken up as a natural sweetener for multiple foods like ice cream, bread, candy, pickles, seafood, vegetables, and soft drinks. Today it is most popular in Japan and China being used in over 40% of their food products.
It was not until recently that stevia was a recognized natural sweetener in the US. In fact, it was only a number of years ago that it was banned from import due to a deal with major food corporations trying instead to push artificial sweeteners like Equal and Nutrasweet. It is now recognized by the FDA is a dietary supplement, though not as a sweetener even though it is used by multiple sources as one. Apparently major soft drink companies are trying to get it recognized as one to add to their sodas... You can take that as you will!
Is stevia safe?
It was a big question of mine since after reading multiple sources it sounded like many people were on the fence about it. Even while it can be used as a treatment for diabetes, aging, energy booster, and for tooth decay there were many that said the fresh or dried herb was dangerous. I was confused, especially considering it has so many positive benefits and was entirely the opposite of an overly bleached and processed powdered version. The thing was that while the FDA warns this herb can be harmful in high doses, there were no sources to studies of this.
Stevia is 200 times sweeter than cane sugar and has zero calories. It is made of two components called Rebaudioside A and Stevioside. When these two compounds are separated, Rebaudioside A is what is used in the powdered sweetener you can purchase at the store. This is not stevia. It's an isolated chemical (like what's in Truvia) and is highly processed containing erythritol from corn and dextrose.
The reason behind the warnings for stevia are simple: high amounts of stevioside (which only makes up 10% of a true stevia leaf) can cause temporary infertility, lower blood sugar levels, and effect the cardiovascular and renal systems. There are warnings that it can cause cancer and genetic mutations. Yikes! That sound dangerous, though the fresh plant or dried is safe. Of course, that means in small amounts. Don't eat stevia all day everyday. You can put it in your iced tea.
Stevia does not affect blood sugar levels because of its compounds and confuses the body. Because it has hormone mimicking effects, the body reacts to it as a contraceptive in men and women, which is caused by Stevioside. Occasional, small consumption has little effect on this, but it should not be taken by those with altered hormone balance, or someone trying to conceive that is having trouble. It also should not be taken by those with weakened immune systems. Is stevia safe for you? I would ask you doctor!
I am not a licensed herbalist or doctor. I am just a hobbyist, but being knowledgable about what I use in my body is something I don't take lightly. If you are looking to reduce processed sugars in your home, especially for beverages, stevia might work for you! I would not use the processed version, personally. What do you use fresh stevia for?