Know Your Herbs- Stevia Rebaudiana

Shehjar e-magazine

ue to sedentary life styles that we all tend to lead these days the incidence of obesity and diabetic conditions is increasing dramatically. To remain healthy, consumers are on the look out for new, safer, low calorie sweetening agents derived, primarily, from natural plant sources.

Furthermore, manufacturers and food/beverage processors all over the globe are reconsidering what additives they need to use in their products and alterations to be made to meet consumer demand for low calorie sweeteners In fact, consumers are drawn by four words that make up two key descriptive expressions, i.e., all-natural” and “low calorie”.

Several plants are reported to possess sweetening properties but in a holistic manner one plant fills this gap and that is Stevia rebaudiana, popularly known as stevia, a sweet wonderherb native to Paraguay. Dr M.S. Bertoni botanically described Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) and named the plant (in 1905) in honour of Paraguayan chemist Dr Rebaudi. It is a small green plant bearing leaves which have a delicious and refreshing taste that can be 30 times sweeter than sugar. The intense sweetness of the leaves is due to presence of chemical compound called steviosides (150 to 300 times sweeter than sugar). The leaves have been traditionally used for hundreds of years in Paraguay and Brazil to sweeten local teas, medicines and as a „sweet treat‟. Steviosides, extracted from the leaves of stevia by a process, are reported to have zero calories and can be used wherever sugar is used, including in baking etc.

Today, Stevia is one of the most health restoring plants on the Earth. What whole Stevia leaf does both inside the body and on the skin is incredible. Besides the intensely sweet glycosides (Steviosides, Rebaudiosides and a Dulcoside), various studies have found the leaf to contain proteins, fibers, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, rutin (a flavionoid), true vitamin A, Vitamin C and essential oil which contains 53 other constituents. Quality Stevia leaves and whole leaf concentrate are nutritious offering numerous health benefits as natural dietary supplements.

Stevia is a new crop and is gaining very high popularity amongst all type of sweetener users as most ideal substitute for sugar. Presently it is consumed in large quantities in countries such as Japan, Korea. China, Malaysia etc. In Japan, about 2000 t of stevia extracts are consumed annually. Today Stevia Rebaudiana extract accounts for 40% of the sweetner market in Japan, Korea and Malaysia. Being ideal for diabetics and low calorie diets; in Japan „diet Coke‟ uses steviosides instead of chemical sweetener, Aspartame. For over 25 years now, the Japanese have used stevia and its extracts as a table top sweetener, in soft drinks, baked goods, pickles, fruit juices, jams and jellies, candies, yogurts, pastries, chewing gum, sherbets, toothpaste and tobacco products. The market in the US is currently in strong competition with artificial sweeteners, but these are loosing ground in the health war stakes as recently US FDA is reported to have removed cap on the use of rebaudioside (a derivative of steviosides) by declaring it as “GRAS”(generally recognized as safe).

Stevia leaves and stevioside are virtually calorie-free, beneficial in the prevention of dental cavities and do not trigger a rise in blood sugar. Other benefits of adding Stevia to the daily diet include improved digestion and gastrointestinal function, soothing upset stomachs and quicker recovery from minor illness. Users have also reported that drinking Stevia tea or Stevia enhanced teas helped to reduce their desire for tobacco and alcoholic. It should be noted that only the whole stevia leaves have nutritive benefits. Stevioside extracts function as a sweetener and pass through the body undigested, although they do possess anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. When applied topically, the stevia leaves also fight acne and speed wound healing while also reducing the formation of scar tissue. It also inhibits the growth and reproduction of some bacteria and other infectious organisms, including the bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease. Water based whole Stevia leaf concentrate offers several other skin care benefits. When applied regularly as a facial mask it effectively softens and tightens the skin, smoothes out wrinkles and helps to heal various skin blemishes including acne. With regard to production of value added products which constitute the major market segment, recent R&D studies have made possible extraction of Stevia leaves into steviosides through eco-friendly & simpler, water-only extraction processes (similar to sugar processing) in place of the older solvent extraction technology. The ability to be used in baking opens the potential for new, low or no-sucrose but sweet tasting cakes, biscuits, pastries etc.

The plant has been successfully grown under a wide range of climatic conditions in Thailand, Indonesia and the cold northern latitudes of Leningrad and north China and Canada. In cold climates it is grown during summer as an annual crop, with a single harvest. Whereas in tropical areas it is a perennial (2 to 5 years life span) with multiple harvests per year . As an annual crop in Canada, it is suggested that 50 hectares of stevia could produce sweetener equivalent to $1 million of sugar which in Australia would require 240 hectares of cane to grow, i.e. productivity in terms of sweetness equivalent per hectare is high. The cultivation has been taken up some more countries.

India is one of the largest consumers of sugar in the world. Diabetes being one of the major concerns and is increasing at a alarming rate, there is a growing need to look for safer & health promoting sweeteners preferably from plant sources which can be used by all and sundry. Stevia cultivation and production of value added products could provide one of the alternatives. So far as the cultivation prospects are concerned, it has been successfully introduced in India and cultivation is going on in several states which includes Jammu province.

Based on its performance in the cultivation regions, successful stevia cultivation in India could, therefore, provide benefits as follows:
    • Stevia is going to play a major role in satisfying sweetening needs of sweet toothed Indians.
    • As availability of water for irrigation is a matter of concern, its cultivation will ensure higher returns per mega litre of irrigation water used- a boon both for government and farmers.
    • To the consumer through potentially reduced health risk than if consuming artificial sweetners.
    • Besides providing import substitution (reduction of current imports of artificial sweetners), it will give economic fillip to all those having commercial interest in the value added products.
Last but not the least, the total irrigable land required for meeting the countries requirement for natural sweetners will get drastically reduced.

*Dr.Santosh Kumar Bakshi, Ph.D.(Botany) is a freelance consultant in the area of Herbal Developement. Dr. Bakshi, an ex-Senior Scientist, Regional Research Laboratory, Jammmu (CSIR New Delhi,India) brings with him more than three decades of experience in the area of Research and Developement of Medicinal, Aromatic and High value plants of alpine, temperate and tropical regions of India.

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