The New Kid on the Sugar Substitute Block
Artificial sweeteners are a sign of the times today: we want to “have our cake and to eat it too.” In other words, most of us want to consume sugar night and day, without the health effects. There are many artificial sweeteners on the market today that allow us this pleasure; in fact, artificial sweeteners have become a color-coded part of the American diet. Saccharin (Sweet’N Low and Sugar Twin), in its pink packet, came out in the 1970s. Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), in its blue packet, came out in the 1980s. Sucralose (Splenda), in its yellow packet, was added in 1990. The latest release in 2008 was the green packet, stevia (STEE-vee-uh), a natural plant-based sweetener.
The difference between stevia and artificial sweeteners is that stevia is not an artificial sweetener at all, but a natural sugar substitute that is derived from the leaves of a South American plant, Stevia rebaudiana.
Stevia has been used as a sweetener and as a medicinal herb for centuries. Japan began cultivating and selling stevia in the 1970s, and today it accounts for 40 percent of their sweetener market. Before its approval by the FDA, stevia could only be sold in the United States as a dietary supplement.
Stevia is almost too good to be true. A natural substance, it is 300 times sweeter than sugar, has no calories, and doesn’t affect glucose levels. Some recent studies suggest that stevia may actually aid in lowering blood pressure and regulating glucose levels. Stevia’s taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, and some people think it has a somewhat bitter or licorice-like aftertaste.
Stevia can be used as a sugar substitute in most applications, including baking and cooking.
The average conversion rate of sugar to stevia is one cup of sugar per one teaspoonful of pure stevia extract. Stevia is not appropriate in recipes that require sugar caramelizing or browning like meringues.
Stevia has had to travel a long road to the U.S. marketplace, with no lack of controversy. In the end, critics note that the FDA has only permitted a highly purified form of stevia, known as “Rebaudioside A,” and not the stevia plant itself.
Several companies are now marketing this form of stevia: Stevia Extract in the Raw, manufactured by Cumberland Packing Corporation (makers of Sweet’N Low); Truvia, manufactured by Coca-Cola; PureVia, manufactured by PepsiCo; and Sun Crystals, a blend of pure cane sugar and stevia, manufactured by McNeil Nutritionals (makers of Splenda).
For every compelling positive argument in favor of using any of these sweeteners, there is an equally compelling negative argument opposing their use. Consumers have become concerned with cancer risks associated with artificial sweeteners. Some researchers worry about stevia, however, no maximum or daily intake amounts have been established for it. Additionally, consumers should always read product labels; some stevia products combine a sugar alcohol (erythritol) with stevia, which is released slowly from the intestines and can cause gas and bloating.
Also, keep in mind that new research suggests that the body is not easily fooled by artificially sweetened foods and that sugar substitutes are not the key to weight loss. In a report published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, animals fed with artificially sweetened yogurt over a two-week period consumed more calories and gained more weight, mostly in the form of fat, than animals eating yogurt flavored with glucose, a natural, high-calorie sweetener. Studies from Purdue University suggest that ingestion of non-calorie sweeteners can result in a more sluggish metabolism that stores, rather than burns, incoming excess calories. The bottom line is that “sugar-free” does not necessarily lead to weight loss.
Additionally, the body has metabolic requirements for total carbohydrate (glucose) per day. Subsequently, the calories you give up may very well reappear as cravings for extra helpings of other carbohydrate sources of glucose, such as pasta or dessert. Every choice has a consequence.
Knowing what we know today about health, as well as the effects of sugar and possible risks of artificial sweeteners, stevia is an interesting natural sweetner for the future.