In the last few years, stevia has gone from an abstract herb, to a staple on supermarket shelves. This South American plant has the potential to give food the sweet flavour we seek from sugar, without the unwanted calories or spiking insulin levels, which both bring their own myriad of health risks.
The stevia trend is in full swing, both at home and abroad. Pepsi have brought out a variety of cola which is sweetened by stevia instead of sugar. In the United States, a range of stevia-sweetened soft drinks and juices have been launched. Stevia is available in its granulated sugar-like form in many health food shops and supermarkets.
Stevia has been used as a sweetener in Asia for many years, but only recently adopted in most western countries. It has a slight liquorish flavour, and sometimes a bitter aftertaste, ; ; and like other alternative sweeteners, is not exactly the same as sugar. Its one advantage, as claimed by manufacturers, is that it is derived naturally.
In the 1970s, stevia was first considered for use as an alternative sweetener, and has been available in its plant form for some time. However, stevia was only approved for use as a sweetener in Australia and New Zealand in 2008.
It's not the first time we've been offered a sweet alternative. Aspartame and saccharin were developed in laboratory settings, and Splenda is sugar which is processed using chlorinated chemicals. All have their benefits, and their risks.
On its approval for use, aspartame was hailed as a no-calorie sugar solution. While it's still a part of many products on supermarket shelves, this artificial sweetener has also been surrounded by controversy, which cause many to avoid it. Some sugar substitutes, including aspartame, are suspected to be carcinogenic.
Stevia, on the other hand, is being promoted as a natural alternative to sugar. Coming from a natural source, many are quick to assume that its properties don't contain the same health risks as other products like aspartame.
The FDA initially refused to clear stevia for use in the United States, with a clinical trial in 1985 found an association between stevia and cancer, as well as infertility. There have been several criticisms of the methods used in this trial, which was eventually disregarded by the FDA.
More recent studies have found no health risks associated with stevia, however more research is planned into its effects on blood pressure and also its anti-inflammatory properties.
Another problem may be in the sweet flavour itself, with a link existing between artificial sweeteners and increased appetite. Many nutritionists believe that when we experience a sweet flavour, our body is primed for calories to follow. When they don't, we are more likely to seek out additional food. Artificial sweeteners also increase sugar cravings.
The consensus amongst nutritionists, is that sugar itself doesn't not pose health risks, except when consumed in the large amounts that many modern diets consist of. Rather than replacement, moderation is encouraged.