We have all been hearing about Stevia, the zero-calorie, all-natural sweetener new to the market. But what exactly is stevia? Should we be using it in place of sugar in our diets? Is it better than other artificial sweeteners that have been around for years such as Equal, Sweet n’ Low, and Splenda? I was wondering this myself, so I set out to do a little bit of research for you guys.
Stevia rebaudiana is a native South American shrub that traditionally has been used to sweeten beverages and make tea. The word “stevia” refers to the entire plant but only some of its components are sweet. The sweet tasting components of the stevia plant, called steviol glycosides, can be extracted from the leaves of plant and used in food. These steviol glycosides (rebaudioside A being the most common in the US) have a sweetness 200-300 times that of sugar and are used as tabletop sweeteners and to sweeten foods and beverages in the United States and other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Since 1994, stevia has been sold in health food stores as a dietary supplement only and therefore food manufacturers were not allowed to add it to any of their products. In December 2008, the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) recognized rebaudioside A as “GRAS” (Generally Recognized as Safe) as a general-purpose sweetener in foods and beverages. This is not the same as being “approved” by the FDA. When the FDA adds a food or ingredient to the GRAS list, it can be sold in foods and as a food product without prior FDA approval and without definitive proof that the food is actually safe. Therefore, stevia is no longer just a supplement; you can actually find it in the baking aisle of your grocery store alongside other sugars and artificial sweeteners. Stevia is also now an ingredient in some diet sodas, diet drinks, puddings, and yogurts.
Stevia has gained popularity on the market as a zero-calorie, low-carbohydrate, sugar substitute and is therefore an attractive natural sweetener for people on carbohydrate-controlled diets such as diabetics. There are many stevia products out on the market today. You will likely find Truvia, PureVia, and SweetLeaf on the shelves of your local grocery store.
- Truvia (from Coca-Cola and Cargill) is marketed as a tabletop sweetener. The Coca-Cola company will soon sweeten Sprite Green and Odwalla juice drinks with Truvia. Ingredients include erythritol (a natural sweetener found in fruits like pears and grapes), rebiana (stevia extract), and natural flavors.
- PureVia (from PepsiCo and Whole Earth Sweetener Co.) is marketed as a tabletop sweetener. Pepsi will soon use it as a sweetener in SoBe Lifewater. Ingredients include erythritol, isomaltulose (a natural constituent of honey and sugar cane), rebaudioside A (stevia extract), cellulose powder (derived from plant fibers), and natural flavors.
- Sweetleaf (from Wisdom Natural Brands) is also marketed as a tabletop sweetener. Ingredients include soluble fiber and stevia extract.
Stevia is still relatively new in the US and studies have yet to show whether or not stevia is better than other artificial sweeteners on the market. It is recommended that consumers limit their intake to no more than four artificially sweetened products a day so as not to replace other more nutritious foods in your diet. A single serving includes an 8oz diet soda or other sweetened beverage, 1/2 cup sugar-free pudding, 8oz container of sugar-free yogurt, or one packet of artificial sweetener. As with all food items, moderation is key.
I personally tried Truvia for myself. It was definitely much sweeter then sugar, has a mild aftertaste, but overall was quite good. If you are looking for an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener in your diet, give stevia a try!