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A passion for stevia

29 July 2013
Neo Bodumela

A TOP South African scientist making headlines for research on a wonder weight-loss plant credits her childhood in the Eastern Cape for “grounding” her busy career.

Dr Nokwanda Makunga, the South African Association for Botanists president and senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch’s department of zoology and botany, has been at the forefront of academic work on stevia, a natural ingredient in Canderel Green, a new low kilojoule alternative to sugar.

Born in Alice, Makunga was educated at the DSG in Grahamstown from primary school through to matric.

“I have a rural home in a village close to Whittlesea, near Queenstown, and in all honesty, the Eastern Cape is my rock – that place gets you grounded,” she said.

“I gave a lecture at SciFest last year and the local newspapers wrote a little bit about that.”

Makunga said her father, Professor Oswald Daluxulo Makunga, who recently died, influenced her to take a keen interest in botany.

“My dad was a botanist, in fact he was the first black botanist in South Africa.

“I have always taken the environment very seriously and I have always loved plants and my father’s love for gardening has always been an integral part of our lives.

“I started out doing biochemistry but later got to botany and when I started doing botany, it felt like I had come home again.

“When I was about five years old, I would go into the lab with my father and try to help him with experiments as much as a five-year-old could.”

She said there was a lot of interest in the new sweetener containing stevia and stevia in general.

For many centuries, plants have been used by various cultures across the world to improve health and promote well-being. Stevia is an example of this, as it is extracted from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana, a plant which was used for centuries by native South Americans as a natural sweetener.

“Stevia was a part of the native South American culture. The fact that it was used by people for generations upon generations is testament to the safety of consuming stevia products.

“Humans have always been reliant on plants for health purposes, in fact, there is evidence to show that we learnt about the medicinal qualities of plants from animals and an ensuing process of trial and error.

“More recently, what we are seeing is a return to this more natural state.”

She said stevia was ideal for people with diabetes who now for the first time had a choice of a low kilojoule sweetener from a natural source. She explained that while scientists first learnt about stevia in the early 1900s, it was only by about 1952 that it was established what stevia actually was.

“Over time there has been an immense amount of research on stevia and a significant amount of empirical evidence has been produced.

“It may be fairly new here in South Africa, but in reality stevia has been a part of other modern cultures for a long time.

“What we are seeing now is that stevia is going into the normal markets and is not necessarily only being punted as a diabetic or low kilojoule sweetener.

“Stevia is now going into soft drinks like coke and we can even get stevia products in the normal shops whereas before you would only find it in health shops and chemists,” Makunga said.

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SUCCESS IS SWEET: Dr Nokwanda Makunga holding the stevia plant

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