Variously called Satan’s crystals, sweet poison, evil and toxic,
sugar seems to have eclipsed traditional dietary enemies, fat and carbs,
as the substance to blame for global obesity. This, combined with the
rising rate of diabetes, is driving consumer demand for sugar-free and
Artificial or “intense sweeteners” such as
aspartame, sucralose and saccharin have been around for decades, but
despite the fact there’s no evidence to suggest they’re harmful,
consumer distrust of synthetic substances and fear of their various
possible side-effects have led to an appetite for “natural” sweeteners.
Stevia, a “natural” sugar substitute that’s started appearing on
supermarket shelves, is generating a big buzz in food manufacturing. The
leaves of this South American shrub have traditionally been used as a
food sweetener and added to tea. About 300 times sweeter than sucrose
(white sugar), it is a non-nutritive sweetener (NNS), which means it has
almost no kilojoules and, because of its low carb content, has a
negligible effect on blood sugar levels.
Widely used in Japan for more than 30 years, stevia had a controversial
start in the US, where it was originally approved only as a dietary
supplement due to uncertainty around its safety. Finally approved as
food additive in the US and Australia in 2008, it received European Commission approval in 2011.
Appetite for natural sweeteners
The food industry’s
interest in stevia has also been driven by a 30-year high in sugar
prices (partially due to rising demand from China and India) and the
increasing cost of high-fructose corn syrup. Stevia’s super sweetness
may also offer cost savings as manufacturers use very small amounts
compared with sugar.
The demonisation of cane sugar and high-fructose
corn syrup is also motivating manufacturers to capitalise on consumer
desire for “natural” products. As one commentator on a European food and
beverage industry website pointed out, “one of the reasons stevia has
taken off is that sugar is seen as the most unhealthy macronutrient –
which is particularly advantageous to categories such as ready-to-drink
tea and juice.”
In Australia, the stevia market accounts for about 30%
of the low-kilojoule sweetener market, mainly in tablet, powdered,
granulated and liquid form. But based on overseas trends, we can expect
to see a proliferation of stevia-sweetened dairy and chocolate products,
ice-creams, jams, chewing gums and drinks here in the near future.
main advantage of stevia over sugar is its tiny kilojoule load. Compared
with sugar’s 80kJ per teaspoon (5g), stevia-based sweetener Natvia is
4kJ, so adding it to your cuppa or home cooking can help shave
kilojoules off your daily intake. It’s also more tooth-friendly than
sugar, and its negligible effects on blood sugar levels make it a good
choice for diabetics who want a sweet treat.