Stevioside, the main sweet component in the leaves of the Stevia plant, tastes about 300 times sweeter than table sugar, which means only a small amount is needed for sweetening purposes.
As the incidence of type-2 diabetes and obesity is sharply increasing, stevioside is an excellent substitute for sugar. The annual cost of treating these diseases is estimated at 5 billion euros in Belgium, 30 billion euros in Germany and 300 billion US dollars in the USA.
However, the European Commission in 2000 refused to approve Stevia and stevioside because of insufficient evidence for their safety. Now an international team of scientists, led by Jan Geuns and Johan Buyse of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (K.U.Leuven, Belgium), has published a book in which they prove that stevioside is completely safe for use as a sweetener.
Stevioside has numerous benefits as a sweetener: it is 100% natural, stable, contains no calories and promotes good dental health by reducing sugar intake. It can be used by diabetics, obese persons and patients suffering from phenylketonuria, an illness which requires a strict diet without artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. High concentrations of stevioside (250 mg three times daily) lower the blood pressure of hypertensive patients without affecting the blood biochemistry. No significant adverse effects have been observed, and stevioside intake does not affect male potency. It also has potential as a treatment for type-2 diabetes.
Stevia and stevioside are permitted as food additives in Brazil, Korea and Japan. In the United States, they are permitted as a dietary supplement. In response to the European Commission’s request for more research, K.U.Leuven professors Jan Geuns (Laboratory for Functional Biology) and Johan Buyse (Laboratory of Physiology and Immunology of Domestic Animals) set up the European Stevia Research Centre in 2003 at K.U.Leuven in order to co-ordinate research on Stevia and stevioside. One of the centre’s goals is to develop a European quality label for stevioside, which should lead eventually to the lifting of the European ban on stevioside.
The European Stevia Research Centre held the first international symposium on the safety of stevioside in April, 2004. Foreign specialists and K.U.Leuven scientists were invited to give an overview of the recent stevioside research and discussed amongst others the effects of stevioside on type-2 diabetes and on healty volunteers. The proceedings of the symposium, edited by professors Jan Geuns and Johan Buyse, are now available, and the general conclusion is that the use of stevioside as a sweetener is completely safe.