Stevia: a naturally sweet alternative to sugar

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Our sweet-taste addiction has moved on, with sugar and artificial sweeteners now being challenged by Stevia, a natural sweetener.

Zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, sucralose, sorbitol and xylitol, have been used in Australia for decades. They've been in products like sugar-free chewing gum since 1987 - first launched with Wrigley's EXTRA sugar-free gumi - and soft drinks like Diet Coke, available since 1983ii.

The newest answer to our attraction to all things sweet - and one that is not artificial - is the natural sweetener Steviaiii. Used in Japan for over 30 yearsiv, it is naturally produced, does not have the kilojoules that sugar will give you, and a much smaller amount is required to achieve the same sweetness.

Steviol glycosides are naturally occurring sweeteners from the Stevia plant.

What is Stevia?

Steviol glycoside is the sweetener that comes from the native South American Stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana)iii. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has determined that steviol glycosides that met FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) specifications were 'not carcinogenic, genotoxic or associated with any reproductive or developmental toxicity'iv. Similarly, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has concluded that the proposed level of use of the sweetener does not raise public health or safety concerns.

Stevia's benefits include replacing other substances that add sweetness to our food - substances such as sugar and high fructose corn syrup. This allows consumers to reduce sugar intake while avoiding significant changes to their behaviour.

Benefits of reducing sugar intake

Energy is released from all food components and, unfortunately, excess energy intake is stored as fat. Over time this can lead to being overweight or obesev. Sugar is a strong candidate for such an issue as it is high in kilojoulesvi.

Obesity in turn increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetesvii. The Australian Bureau of Statistics in conjunction with the Department of Health and Ageing released results from the Australian Health Survey in 2012 that revealed an increase in the prevalence of overweight and obese people in the community since 1995vii. The proportion of the adult community either overweight or obese has increased from 56.3% in 1995, to 61.2% in 2007-08 to 63.3% in 2011-12vii.

Stevia could be an alternative to sugar to tame those sweet cravings.

Sugar, soft drinks and Stevia

The average consumption of soft drink in Australia was reported at 110 litres per capita in 2003viii. According to the Australian Beverages Council in 2007, 300mL of soft drink (regular and diet) is consumed per person, per dayviii.

According to The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, one glass (250mL) of sugary soft drink, cordial or juice drink can contain up to 30g of added sugar, a large can nearly 40g and a large bottle up to 60gviii. And a report by NSW Health in 2009 identifies soft drinks as the largest contributor to sugar-sweetened drinks consumption, for both children and adultsix.

This is where Stevia comes in. A quarter of a teaspoon (1.25g) of Stevia replaces a tablespoon (15g) of sugar, eliminating 320 kilojoules (77 calories)x. This makes it a potential solution for reducing excessive soft drink sugar consumption.

The main soft drink products available on the Australian market at the moment that contain Stevia are Zevia and Pepsi Next. Zevia relies completely on Stevia as its sweetening ingredient . It is supplied to select retailers, including some IGA supermarketsxii. Pepsi Next on the other hand, is now a regular product in most leading supermarkets and retailers, but contains both Stevia and sugarxiii. The manufacturers of Pepsi Next claim that rather than completely replacing the sugar with Stevia, the reduction of sugar by 30% compared to regular Pepsi results in a product that still appeals to consumersxiv.

i Wrigleys, 2012, Extra,

ii MYCCA, About Stevia,

iii Global Stevia Institute, Neighbourhood Noise Survey 2004,

iv Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), 2011, Standards Development,

v Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2009, Promoting Healthy Weight,

vi The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, 2005, Food for Health, p.21,

vii Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012, 4364.0.55.001 - Australian Health Survey: First Results, 2011-12,

viii Centre for Public Health Nutrition, 2009, Soft Drinks, Weight Status and Health: A Review, NSW Government, p.9,

ix Centre for Public Health Nutrition, 2009, Soft Drinks, Weight Status and Health: A Review, NSW Government, p.10,

x, Stevia Conversion Chart,

xi Fresh Food Enterprises, Zevia,

xii Fresh Food Enterprises, Where to buy,

xiii Schweppes Australia, Pepsi NEXT,

xiv Schweppes Australia, Pepsi NEXT FAQ,