Monday, February 2, 2009
A sweet addiction
My son says I’m addicted and maybe he’s right.
If the definition of an addict is someone dependent on a substance, then label me hooked. My drug of choice, however, is not a drug at all. It’s a zero-calorie, zero-carbohydrate, plant-based sweetener that – unlike sugar - doesn’t induce a dangerous spike in blood sugar. The product is stevia and the way I see it, my dependency upon it is a positive addiction.
Stevia is a member of the Compositae family of herbs – the same family as asters, sunflowers and daisies. The indigenous people in Paraguay and Brazil have used the leaves of this small shrub for hundreds of years to sweeten beverages and medicines but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that other countries began to incorporate the naturally sweet leaves into food products.
The Japanese were the first to jump on the stevia bandwagon. About 30 years ago Japan approved the use of stevia to enhance and sweeten foods and its use quickly became widespread. Today it represents 40 percent of that country’s sweetener market. Although China, India, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have recognized stevia’s taste-enhancing benefits, it wasn’t introduced to the American consumer until 1996. I discovered stevia a few years later and have been adding it to my daily cups of tea ever since.
Unlike Splenda, Sweet N Low or Equal, stevia is not an artificially derived chemical product and unlike sugar, it neither raises blood sugar levels nor adds calories. Fresh picked stevia leaves are 30 times sweeter than table sugar while a purified extract made out of the leaves can be up to 400 times sweeter. Stevia comes in both a powder and liquid form and even though both types share space in my pantry, my latest favorite is the liquid form.
“Why bother pouring it into your tea?” my son asked the other morning while watching me prepare my morning brew. “Why not just inject it directly into your veins?”
I may be addicted but I’m not that far gone.
Mainlining stevia is out of the question but that doesn’t mean the herb’s medicinal qualities are without merit. In Paraguay and Brazil, members of the Guarani tribes have historically used stevia as a remedy for heartburn. Recent research suggests it may also be beneficial to treat hypertension, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Such claims are impressive but that’s not why I use stevia. I like it because it is sweetens my tea without adding calories or potentially dangerous chemical additives.
Apparently, several major beverage companies like those features too. In an attempt to cater to the demands of health and diet conscious consumers, both Coca Cola and Pepsi are in the process of developing stevia-sweetened drinks. Coca Cola will market a version of Sprite during 2009 as well as two flavors of Odwalla juice while Pepsi’s stevia enhanced offerings will include Sobe Lifewater and a Tropicana Orange drink this year.
The only drawback that I can find to stevia is its high price tag. A four-ounce bottle of Stevia Clear Liquid manufactured by Wisdom Natural Brand under the name of SweetLeaf Sweetener costs $14.95. It took me just over two months and about a hundred cups of tea and homemade stevia-laced lemon and limeade to use up the liquid in that bottle. At that rate, a year’s supply of the naturally sweet liquid would cost about $90. That’s a fair amount of money but I don’t mind spending it because it enables me to enjoy my favorite beverages without worry about added calories or health concerns.
Prior to the 20th century, a typical American consumed only 5 pounds of sugar a year. Today we ingest 135 pounds of the refined white powder annually. Not surprisingly, health problems have increased too. Sugar has been linked to a number of health concerns including cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, periodontal disease, depression and allergies.
America’s obsession with sugar makes my addiction to stevia seem minor by comparison. If more people got hooked on positive food choices – whether it is switching from white flour to whole grains, cutting back on processed foods, eliminating hydrogenated oils or reducing their sugar intake - we’d be a far healthier nation.
Being addicted isn’t always bad. The problem isn’t the addiction itself – it’s what you choose to be addicted to.