Sweet solution to rising number of diabetics in the Philippines
Maura de Leon grew up in a farming community in Bocaue, Bulacan, so she might say she has an insight into how her fellow farmers have been forced to eke out a living amid falling prices for agricultural produce, diminishing yields and the town’s hopes to be industrialized.
“Our connection to the land was intimate. We realized a long time ago that communities, no matter how sophisticated, should never shun the importance of agriculture. To ignore the importance of having dependable sources of food was to risk malnutrition and starvation,” says the 57-year-old president and CEO of Glorious Industrial and Development Corp., a company that manufactures various plant-based products.
Since 2002, De Leon’s company has been supporting some 30 families, teaching them the ways on how not to depend solely on rice crop.
“During my search for another useful crop, I came across the plant Stevia, a South American herb that has been used as a sweetener by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay for hundreds of years. The plant is mainly grown for its leaves as sugar substitutes, also called artificial sweeteners. When I was able to secure some samples, I decided this could be the key to help my community,” De Leon says.
But growing the Stevia in Bocaue proved to be a challenge, as De Leon spent years experimenting on the best way to raise and cultivate the plant.
“It is a very delicate plant to raise and you need to balance everything, the soil, water, the organic fertilizers as well as the amount of sunlight. Another challenging aspect is how to make Stevia a viable source of living. We were able get the assistance of the Department of Science and Technology personnel who taught us how to process the Stevia leaves into a marketable powdered form,” she relates.
Indeed, the Stevia has huge economic potential as the whole plant—from leaves down to the roots—tastes sweet, about 10 times sweeter than table sugar. Because of this, only a tiny amount is needed for sweetening the food products or in preparing drinks.
“But what is most interesting is that the steviol glycosides—the sweet extracts from the Stevia plant—are not metabolized by the body so there is no caloric intake. Even diabetics can use the powdered Stevia because it does not cause any unfavorable effects to blood sugar levels,” according to De Leon, who has, in fact, been serving the sweetener to several diabetics in her family.
Indeed, proponents claim that Stevia is a better option than regular table sugar because it is sweeter and has zero calorie.
According to Mayo Clinic, it’s not actually the Stevia itself that has approval for use as a sugar substitute but rather only certain highly refined Stevia preparations that contain rebaudioside A.
In fact, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration has declared certain highly refined Stevia preparations as “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS, which means that they can be used as sugar substitutes.
De Leon agrees that supporting the Stevia business will enable her fellow farmers and growers enough reason not to abandon farming. “We are also helping them build other forms of business, like teaching them how to use the Stevia products in their food preparation.”
She believes that with more research as well as more support for the Stevia business, the country may have a strong ally in helping the estimated 3.4-million Filipinos who are afflicted with diabetes.
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