Stevia is a totally natural sweetener that tastes like sugar, behaves like sugar, is as sweet as sugar and looks like sugar, but it is calorie-free and it has the food industry in a spin, as experts are predicting it could have a major impact on illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.
What is exciting food experts so much is that stevia is an entirely natural product, and as such, is deemed to be much better for you than other sugar substitutes. Aspartame, for example, had previous links to cancer; saccharin showed in studies that muscle dysfunction was caused if used in baby formula, and sucralose was opposed by green groups as the production of the process involved treating the sugar with chlorine and phosgene, both of which can cause contamination of groundwater.
So does this mean that stevia will shortly be replacing sugar as the substitute of choice? Well, not necessarily. There are some complaints about the actual taste of stevia, with some people finding there is an overriding taste of liquorice, or even a chemical after-taste to the product, strange when you consider is it an entirely natural compound. In fact, the dairy company Danone decided to add more sugar to the stevia sweetened yoghurts, after consumers complained about the aftertaste of the stevia only sweetened products. They found that a combination of sugar and stevia worked much more successfully.
But it appears that the majority of people do like the taste of stevia, and this could be a major factor in tackling obesity in the UK alone. Dr Margaret Ashwell, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Global Stevia Institute says: “Stevia can help people enjoy natural origin sweetness while reducing calories as part of a healthy balanced diet. There are enormous opportunities for industry to meet national and international pledges to reduce sugar in products to help the obesity crisis.”
Stevia also allows people to give in to their sugar cravings, relatively guilt free, as it is proven that we as humans seek out sugar laden products, in riper fruit, for example. And it is part of one of the pleasures of eating food that has a sweeter taste. However, there is some concerns that people might be drawn into eating more sugar-laden products that contain stevia, knowing that they do contain less calories, and this could potentially lead to an increase in dental cavities, and as the cost of stevia is ten times that of sugar, the price of food could go up.
Nonetheless, American scientists do not believe that this is the case, as researchers from the Purdue University at Indiana found that stevia is actually better for your teeth, as it fights the plaque acid from forming on your teeth.
And although there have been no long-term studies on the consumption of stevia, people in South America have been using it for over 3,000 years, without any noticeable ill effects.
Currently stevia can be found in products such as Tropicana orange juice, various yoghurts, and soft drinks such as Sprite, as well as a replacement for sugar itself. And experts believe that in the future, as people tend towards products with a clear health benefit and a natural origin, we shall see stevia take more of a stronghold in the market place.