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The scoop on stevia

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

The ‘pure, white and deadly’ myths surrounding sugar have helped create a huge market for alternative sweeteners. Some, such as aspartame (Equal/Nutrasweet) and saccharin, have themselves been subject to a huge number of urban myths and internet scare-mongering about their supposed poor safety record. But these non-nutritive sweeteners are in fact among the world’s most tested and evaluated food ingredients and there is an extremely lengthy government process in place for approval, monitoring, review and regulation before they are allowed to be included in the food supply.

This process includes scientific risk assessment reports, independent scientific review plus public consultation and can take several years. The latest tabletop sweetener and food ingredient to go through this process and be added to the alternative sweetener ranks is stevia, the common name for the extract stevioside made from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a natural, sweet-tasting plant native to South America. It has recently been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Stevia rebaudiana

You can now find stevia in hundreds of food products including teas, soft drinks, juices, yogurt, soymilk, baked goods, cereals, salad dressings and confectionery. Interestingly stevia is not yet approved as a food ingredient by Canadian regulators. And before you jump to the conclusion that Canadians are more wary than the rest of us, it just means that they are on a different timeline and yet to assess an application for stevia. You can read more background on stevia in Canada here.

What I would like to suggest is that rather than focus on the safety of non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia, you really need to devote your energy to deciding if they will work for you. For your diabetes management? For your weight loss? For your style of cooking, eating and family meals? For your budget?

Stevia for example will have virtually no effect on your blood glucose levels and can help you cut back on your calories if you use it to replace equivalent amounts of sugar, honey, etc… And one recent study reported in Appetite found that people do not compensate with extra calories or kilojoules after consuming food and drinks sweetened with stevia and participants reported similar levels of satiety (appetite satisfaction) to consuming a high calorie sucrose preload. You can read further studies on stevia at the Global Stevia Institute.

The major drawback of stevia and other non-nutritive sweeteners is that they aren’t as versatile as sugar and honey and other nutritive sweeteners. This is because:

  • They tend not to be heat stable.
  • They don’t brown or caramelise.
  • They don’t add texture or bulk to food when used in baking or making desserts.
  • And they also tend to be much more expensive gram for gram.

So if you invest in stevia to sweeten your tea or coffee, you will still have to keep sugar (Logicane is a good option) in the pantry if you occasionally like to bake or make desserts.

Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out for hot news bites.