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Curious about Stevia? This plant has been used to sweeten foods and beverages for at least a couple of hundred years, but has only recently become popular in North America. What is it- and can you benefit from it?

Stevia is a plant in the chrysanthemum family originally grown wild in parts of South America. It is a shrub which was primarily found in parts of Brazil and Paraguay. Even before colonial rule, Stevia was used by native south Americans to sweeten traditional drinks.

Stevia Rebaudiana is the only species of the stevia plant which is renown for its incredible sweetness. Today, it is bottled and packaged in powder and liquid form, and sold all over the world. Farmers now grow stevia for market in China, Japan, Brazil, Paraguay, a few islands in the Pacific Rim and more recently in California and even in the most fertile parts of south eastern Canada.

Benefits of Stevia

The main reason Stevia has gained so much popularity is that it is an organic sweetener. It is derived from a herb, and has no calories. This zero calorie option makes it a huge seller for most people looking to reduce their intake of refined sugar. In addition, it offers a healthy alternative to synthetic sweeteners like Sweet n' low, Splenda and Equal, which are made up of chemically formed sucralose, aspartame and saccharin.

Stevia is between 10 and 15 times more sweet than regular sugar. That is a huge difference- and it is dependent upon each plant. However, when it is highly processed and extracted, it can be between 250 and 300 times sweeter than natural sugar. Far less is required to get the same flavour as with sugar.

Stevia vs sweeteners

The major difference between Stevia and other sweeteners is where it comes from. While there are also a lot of inconclusive studies on artificial sweeteners, no studies have ever found a possible connection between stevia and brain cancer or central nervous system problems.

Sweeteners are developed in a lab and processed in a factory whereas Stevia is a herb; grown, harvested, and processed in one of several ways to separate the sweet glycosides.

Once through the processing, Stevia's nutritional potential is almost negligible. Sweeteners do not contain any nutritional value at all; stevia and artificial sweeteners are on par when it comes to nutritional factor.

Regulating Stevia

The United States Food and Drug Administration has recently approved Stevia as a natural sweetener. Initially, the position of the US FDA was a little ambiguous, but with the proof that it has no negative health effects, it has been accepted as an alternative to sugar and corn syrup. Several credible studies on the effects of edibles are required before the FDA makes decisions on what is accepted and what is not.

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