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with professor Jan Geuns about stevia
October 26th, 2011, Professor Jan Geuns of the KU Leuven gave sugarfreestevia.net
an exclusive interview about the imminent approval of stevia in Europe
and about the future of the sweet leaf.
a sunny Wednesday afternoon I find myself a bit lost in the majestic
Castle Park of Arenberg on the campus of Leuven University. I
have an appointment with professor Jan
Geuns in the Laboratory for Functional Biology. The past
few weeks have been a crazy rollercoaster for him, he tells me. Today
alone, no less than eight people have visited him for an interview, all
of them on stevia. I'm number seven. It appears that stevia is more
popular in the media than I first thought... So I don't plan on wasting
any time with my questions:
How did you
discover stevia for the first time?
"In the early eighties, a Flemish man came to
visit me in my laboratory, which was still situated in the center of
Leuven back then. He had a few stevia plants with him and asked me if I
could analyze them. At that time, I couldn't find the time for it, but
a few years later I went to Romania where they were growing stevia
plants, and I was asked the same question. That's how I got into stevia
and since then it has been taking up all of my time.
I've always had a keen interest in isoprenoids in
plants – compounds that are among others responsible for the
aromatic substances in pine trees. Another derivate from isoprenoids is
cholesterol, for example. There are thousands of these components found
throughout the world, and this subject greatly fascinates me."
What about the
approval of stevia in Europa and the US? There seems to be a bit of
confusion on the Internet regarding the types of substances that will
"In America, the mixture of steviol glycosides
has been officially granted GRAS approval since 1998. There is one
condition though: the mixture has to be at least 95% pure. Soon - in
early November - there will be an approval in Europe for steviol
glycosides with a purity of 95% as well.
Stevia plants are another story: in Europe, the
plant and dried leaves are not approved. That's because someone from
the Ministry of Public Health took the now infamous "novel food" claim
to the European Institutions in 1997, claiming that stevia was a new
Despite the fact that the very same Ministry of
Public Health had approved the selling of stevia extracts in 1984,
stevia was categorized as novel food in 1997. That meant that I had to
file a report for approval, which led me to discover that stevia was in
fact already being sold all over Europe at that time.
Unfortunately, the approval of new food types is
based on negative argumentations. It's impossible to claim that a
certain product has no side effects whatsoever on the human body -
positive or negative. You can only prove that there are no harmful side
effects when a food type is used within a certain range, like a daily
amount. In the US, certain products are approved when food types are
proven to be safe within a certain range: that's the so-called GRAS
status. Should harmful side effects be discovered later on, those
products are taken off the shelves immediately. In Europe, however,
there is a holier-than-thou attitude about accepting new food types,
and that has been the base of the problem until now."
"A large company wanting to grow, has no other
choice but to eliminate the smaller ones and take their market share.
That's exactly what happens when refined products are released into the
stores. Novel food really has nothing to do with public health, but
with keeping small players from establishing themselves. On average,
submitting a report on novel food will set you back about $18 million.
Small companies can't afford that sort of money. If the goal is truly
to keep European food safe, then we should submit sugar to the same
standards as novel foods and analyze it accordingly. I'm
certain that it would be banned immediately."
Which brand of
stevia do you use yourself? Do you grow your own plants?
"We have had our own plants at home in the past,
but during one hot and long summer we forgot to water them, and they
died. Since then we have stopped intensively growing stevia, although
we still have some plants in our greenhouse. I buy my stevioside from a
company in Japan and that's what my family uses."
There is a lot
of speculation going on online about the benefits and dangers of
stevia, but which of these can be backed up with hard evidence, and
which are bogus?
"First and foremost, you have to take into
account the amount of stevia you will be using to sweeten food. On
average, you could say that people are going to consume 200 to 300
grams of stevia each day, at the most. Those kinds of low doses will
not cause any effects. If you're considering the treatment of high
blood pressure, for example - which you should always do only under the
supervision of a doctor - we're talking about consuming 750 to 1500 mg
There are a large number of scientific articles,
proving that stevia lowers high blood pressure and that it doesn't
affect people with normal of low blood pressure. That's the first
A second aspect is that stevioside regulates
blood sugar levels in people suffering from type 2 diabetes. Not only
does it lower these levels, but stevioside also greatly increases
insulin sensitivity and slows down insulin resistance to a great
extent. These effects have also been proven.
We have patented our own research towards the
effects of arteriosclerosis. Stevioside actively battles the hardening
of the arteries. It lowers the "bad" cholesterol and increases the
"good". All of these effects influence lipids and have been proven
There are also a number of cancers - such as
skin cancer - that are slowed down thanks to stevioside, when applied
topically or when ingested. Since last year, we have found an
explanation for all of these effects: all of the aforementioned
ailments - high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, arteriosclerosis and
some forms of cancer - are related to so-called "oxygen radicals".
I'll explain what they are with the help of a
simple example: picture a coal stove. In order to achieve optimal
combustion, we have to meticulously regulate the air flow. Well, our
body has thousands of these tiny "stoves", called the mytochondria, which
we use to burn sugars. If you pour a whole bottle of soda on a
well-functioning stove, toxins are released. If we continuously have
too much sugar in our blood, that sugar will combine itself with
enzymes, which in turn will no longer function properly. Subsequently,
the sugar is not combusted properly, which creates these toxins called
Stevioside actively avoids these radicals. In
our bodies, radicals are produced continuously, but we have a system
that balances out their formation and detoxification; our
enzymes can handle that.
But when we constantly expose our bodies to
unhealthy foods, an over-production of radicals occurs, which we can no
longer eliminate on our own. Stevioside diminishes these radicals and -
if there are any left - detoxificate them too. So you could say that we
have found the common link that explains all of these phenomena."
legislation on “novel food” originated through the
interference of large food concerns. Big companies are toying with our
health by releasing unhealthy foods onto the market, but most citizens
don't stop to think about things like that."
"However, I know that there are a number of
people telling the strangest tales about stevia: for example, a group
of children in China that had been playing under an orange tree for
years, and suddenly started fighting amongst themselves. People noticed
that someone had planted stevia plants under the tree, and started to
claim that stevia's glycosides had affected the oranges somehow, making
these children violent. Complete nonsense, of course, but the sad thing
is that these kinds of stories have quickly started spreading all over
lobbies very happy, no doubt.
"Evidently. Now that you mention the lobbies:
there was a very negative report on stevia, issued by the former
European Scientific Committee on Food, which stated that stevioside was
detrimental to male fertility, which makes no sense whatsoever. They
pointed to fake articles which even stated that animal subjects handn't
even been exposed to stevia extract. Still, these so-called
"scientists" concluded that stevia caused fertility problems. These
reports are full of rubbish made up by people who are opposed to
stevia. That has absolutely nothing to do with scientific integrity."
are currently taking place?
"It is commonly accepted that there are about 36
substances in stevia that we currently know about, some of them in
really small concentrations. We are developing methods to precisely
measure the amounts of these sweeteners. We have developed an internal
method of research that is truly one of a kind, and that I can
confidently call the best in the world at this point in time.
We will be organising another ring test soon, in
which several laboratories from all corners of the world will
participate. We will then await those results and present them in our
I'm also working on a kind of genetic database
in association with EUSTAS, the European Stevia Association. Some
stevia plants are more sweet than others, and if you start working
solely with the sweet variants, you will eventually end up with plants
which are all sweet. Those can then be used as cultivars - mother
plants. Right now, we have about seven or eight of these. We are
measuring certain growth parameters, like the best climatological
circumstances to grow the plants in. This enables us to select certain
plant types which are able to germinate in moderate climates, like our
Aside from stevia rebaudiana, we are
experimenting with other stevia varieties so we can crossbreed, which
will produce more resistant plants."
genetic manipulation of the plant?
"The other thing we are doing in our project, is
to make sure we don't have any GMO's (Genetically Modified Organisms),
because we're not interested in spreading those. Let's look at things
on a global scale for a minute: steiva is being cultivated all across
the world, but it's still very much a culture-bound plant that we still
don't know a whole lot about. Compared to corn, wheat, or potatoes -
things that are common to us: there are tons of books written on a
multitude of cultivars. In this respect, stevia is still an unknown
plant. That's what we will strive to change in the future."
How do you see
the future of stevia? Do you think it has the potential to cause major
uproars, both on a national and international scale?
"Most definitely. In France, stevia was approved
two years ago, and in that time the market has soared. Granted, the
market growth has stagnated a bit over the past six months or so.
That's because only rebaudioside A has been approved in France, and reb
A is about five times more expensive than the stevioside mixture.
Stevia producing companies are now waiting for an approval of
stevioside, so that they can develop new and cheaper products and
recipes. But there is no doubt that stevia has a big future ahead of
used to call me crazy because all of this seemed too good to be true.
But many of these studies have now actually been proven."
how busy is your schedule nowadays?
"Next week I'm leaving for Milan and Poland. This year, I have been to
India, Mauritius, Paris, London, The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.
The plan was to visit Paraguay as well, but that was cancelled due to
time constraints. I also have other work to do, and classes to teach.
Usually, someone drops me in a hotel close to the airport, because I
have to give a lecture early in the morning in one country, then fly
back to Belgium because I have a class to teach. I'm going straight
from the hotel to the airport and back, and I never really have the
chance to really visit any of these countries. All that back and forth
really gets under your skin sometimes."
Is there a lot
of interest from the European press?
"A Belgian news show has already stopped by to
film: the broadcast can be seen on December 1st. I generally try to
talk about stevia as little as possible, because there are already
thousands of emails hitting my inbox every day. I get rid of about 200
of them daily, but they just keep popping up again the next day. There
is a lot of interest.
Prominent Belgian magazines have visited me, as
well as German tv and radio stations. The French national tv station
was here too: that broadcast will air some time soon. I simply can't
recall most of them anymore.
We are in desperate need of a healthy sweetener,
and now we've finally got it. A lot of people are a bit worried about
the licorice-like taste of stevia. Obviously, you can't compare
steviosides to sugar that way. But once you get used to the taste, you
will probably like it even better."
Europe has until Saturday, October 29th to
disregard the positive advice that stevia has received, but professor
Geuns doesn't expect any more trouble. Keeping in mind all of the
paperwork involved, the official approval will come halfway through
November and after that, it can still take up to one month before the
first products with stevia will hit the shelves. You might want to
highlight December 15th on your calendars and shopping lists!
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