Stevia and the No Added Sugar controversy

Can the herb stevia provide the answer to chemical additives?

Artificial sweeteners and the proposed sugar tax

As I write this, there is a national campaign fronted by Jamie Oliver to tax sugary drinks. This is an admirable battle in the war against childhood obesity, with primary schools and the NHS standing to share £1bn in revenue if the scheme should ever go ahead. However, this is a complex issue and it is possible that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame and sucralose may also be damaging to health. The leaves of a herb called stevia might provide the answer.

The limitations of artificial sweeteners

A small study was recently carried out on BBCs Trust Me I’m a Doctor, in which 15 volunteers switched to either saccharin or stevia and had their blood sugar levels and gut bacteria tested before and after. Fasting blood sugar levels were found to be significantly higher for certain people in the group taking saccharin than they were previously. The results of the gut bacteria tests showed that those people who had high blood sugar after taking saccharin all had a similar bacterial composition, whereas stevia consumption seemed to have no effect on blood sugar across all gut bacteria types. This study was itself inspired by a research paper published in the science journal Nature [1]. The article found a link in mice between NAS (non-caloric artificial sweeteners) and glucose intolerance which the team attributed to altered composition of gut bacteria. The BBC team says:

“Although our study, and the one that preceded it, were both on small numbers of people, the consistent results – alongside the results found previously in mice – certainly suggest that saccharin is bad for some people, whilst we have no evidence that stevia is. The people whom saccharin tends to affect seem to be those with a specific gut bacteria composition.”

As most people won’t know their gut bacteria composition, the team’s advice was to avoid saccharin. The team also pointed out that evidence in mice is that aspartame and sucralose may have a similar effect.

There is no other research like this for the effect of stevia at the moment, but in the meantime, the Trust Me team says:

“…if you are looking for a sugar alternative then at the moment, stevia seems most likely to be the best out there. On the back of packaging it is sometimes called ‘steviol glycosides’, which are the sweet-tasting compounds in the Stevia plant.”

It should be noted that both of these studies were small scale, so any findings would have to be explored further before arriving at a full understanding of the effects of artificial sweeteners.

More about the herb stevia

Stevia rebaudiana is a natural herb which can be used as a sweetener and may not work in the same way as artificial additives, so may not have the same drawbacks. It is native to South America and enjoys the humidity there, but can be grown in the UK if treated as a tender perennial. Unsurprisingly one of its common names is sweetleaf!

herb plant stevia

The herb stevia can be grown in the UK as a tender perennial.

Medical Herbalist Barbara Wilkinson says*:

Stevia is a herb I grow for general use as an alternative to sugar with all it’s negative effects. It  has been grown and used for centuries in South America and Japan but has been ignored in the UK until recently. It can be grown here if protected from cold and frost, so treat like someone you love. There is a taste like liquorice if used in excess as the bitter chemicals it contains play with our taste buds. It is non-calorific and doesn’t mess with our blood glucose levels. No wonder Coca cola are now using it as people wake up to the dangers of sugar. Consumers should be aware that manufactured brands of stevia sweetener may contain other ingredients such as erythritol, so grow your own or buy from an organic reputable source.
drying stevia leaves

Use a herb dryer to preserve stevia leaves for use year-round

Risks and benefits of stevia and other sweeteners

In reviewing the literature relating to this topic, it becomes clear that there is still much research to do in this field. Links have been found between artificial sweeteners and obesity, for example Dr Tandel writing a review in 2011 says [2]:

“There is some ongoing controversy over whether artificial sweetener usage poses health risks. A study done in 2005 by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio showed that, rather than promoting weight loss, the use of diet drinks was a marker for increasing weight gain and obesity. Those who consumed diet soda were more likely to gain weight than those who consumed naturally-sweetened soda. Animal studies have convincingly proven that artificial sweeteners cause body weight gain.

It would be a shame if we all switched to artificial sweeteners only to find that we had made things worse. Most supermarket fizzy drinks already contain NAS as a matter of routine. It does seem sensible to try and reduce our intake of sweet things overall, rather than just switching from sugar to sweetener.

As for stevia, the initial signs look promising for the use of this herb as it seems to work differently, but its effects are less well known than those of saccharin.

To summarise, for a healthy diet, it would seem sensible to reduce sugar intake and avoid artificial sweeteners wherever possible. If you are looking to replace artificial sweeteners, try pure stevia in moderation but be aware that commercial processed brands may contain other ingredients.

We are looking forward to reading further research on this subject!

[1] J. Suez et al, Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota, Nature 514, 181–186 (09 October 2014)

[2] K. R. Tandel, Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits, J. Pharmacol, 2011, 2, 4, 236

*writing in the Herb Society e-newsletter January 2015. The email newsletter is one of many benefits of becoming a Herb Society member. Find out more in our Herb Society membership leaflet.

Image credits Barbara Wilkinson who is a Herb Society trustee.

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Flowering herbs in my garden | Spring

Many herbs in my garden are now in flower

I live on the Sussex coast in a Victorian terraced cottage about a mile from the sea. I have a small town garden and try to squeeze in a few herbs wherever I can. From March onwards you can see a succession of traditional culinary herbs flowering in my garden such as thyme, chives and rosemary. Chamomile, comfrey and violas have their uses too, and I love my jasmine and scented leaf pelargoniums flowering under glass.

front door

Making herb tea

I am not knowledgeable about the medical uses of herbs, but I enjoy flowers and my garden, and use the plants wherever I can. I enjoy making fresh peppermint, lemon balm and chamomile teas. Chamomile flowers are a big favourite of mine with their apple-like fragrance and simple blooms. Once dried, they can be used in a sleep pillow in a similar manner to lavender. In fact my main hobby is using flowers from the garden in craft, and that often means drying them for use later.

harvesting chamomile herb flowers

Harvesting chamomile flowers to make tea – I dry them for use year-round.

Herbs under glass

scented leaf pelargoniums

My friend Mercy is an avid collector of scented leaf pelargoniums so there are always a few overwintering in my lean-to. Sometimes I dry the leaves and flowers for potpourri.

jasmine flowers

Jasmine flowering in my greenhouse – I don’t make use of it in any way other than to enjoy the enveloping fragrance, but I do hear it has a role to play in hormone regulation.

Flowers in my garden

garden flowers violas

Violas are such a cheery plant in early Spring. I press them for art projects or crystallise them to decorate cakes.

early comfrey flowers

This yellow comfrey (traditionally named knit-bone) is one of the earliest herbs in my garden, flowering from early March.

blue comfrey herb

This comfrey Hidcote Blue grows up to five feet tall and greatly improves the quality of my compost when I cut it down after flowering, due to its high nutrient levels.

early rosemary herb flowers

Rosemary flowers: my plant is still small, but I am looking forward to being able to harvest straight twigs for use as skewers on the barbeque.

Herbs later in the year

As I write this in early June, my pots of lavender are just coming into flower. My favourite flower, the ancient stripy rose Rosa mundi has two buds just thinking about opening, with many more behind. Other herbs such as borage and calendula are on their way. So perhaps another post later in the year!

Do you have any herb pics you’d like to share?

Do email them to me at ruth@herbsociety.org.uk and I will share them with other herb enthusiasts on Facebook and Twitter.

The Gardens at Westminster Abbey

Herbs and serenity in central London

Last week, the London herb group visited Westminster Abbey with Head Gardener and Herb Society member Jan Pancheri. The gardens comprise several areas: Deans Yard; Great Cloister Garth; Little Cloister; St Catherine’s Garden, and the College Garden which contains a beautiful herb area.

outside westminster abbey

Westminster Abbey in the hustle and bustle of central London. On entering the Great Cloister, peace reigns.

little cloister

Once inside the Abbey grounds, the atmosphere is incredibly tranquil, for example in the Little Cloister

st catherines garden

St Catherine’s Garden with column bases and self seeded erigerons

college garden

Corners of the College Garden – roses planted for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee; a grape vine, and bluebells in grass

As herb enthusiasts, it was the herb garden that attracted much of our attention. It is square in shape and separated into quarters, with a central decorative circular bed planted with Rosa Mundi. The four main beds each contain vegetables; culinary herbs; medicinal herbs and dye plants. The garden was opened by the Queen in 2010, and reflects the way herbs may have been used by the Benedictine monks who lived in the Abbey centuries ago.

herb garden

The herb garden beautifully set out with willow edging – we were shown around by Jan (stripy top)

herb garden plants

Herb garden plants that caught my eye: woad; very early nasturtiums; milk thistle, and white flowered borage

greenhouse

It’s always great to see behind the scenes. Jan has a lovely corner of the College Garden for office work and propagation

It was a really enjoyable morning, and Jan was kind enough to include a visit to the Abbey’s impressive library in her tour.

Find out more about Westminster Abbey Gardens

If you are a Herb Society member and would like to join the London herb group, contact Gwenneth at garden@gbz.demon.co.uk