More and more products are being sweetened with stevia, but what exactly is it? HFG dietitian Brooke Longfield has the facts on this sweet substitute.
These days, we have our pick of a sweet raft of alternatives to regular sugar. These new sweeteners are generally very low in kilojoules, and some are practically kilojoule free.
Food and drink manufacturers don’t reserve these new sugar substitutes for soft drinks alone. They also use them to sweeten products such as iced teas and yoghurts, making them much lower in kilojoules than their regular counterparts. As a result, these types of products appeal to those of us who are watching our weight, yet still wish to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Until recently, manufacturers mostly used sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) and cyclamates. Sugar alcohols, such as mannitol, sorbitol, isomalt and xylitol, are also common in foods. You’ll find sugar alcohols in lollies, cough drops, chewing gum, jams, jellies and some baked goods.
Stevia stands out in this crowded field because it’s a natural extract of the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) plant. So it’s an attractive choice if you prefer a sweetener that comes from a natural source. In fact, South Americans have been sweetening foods with stevia for centuries, adding it to herbal teas and other beverages.
Raw stevia leaves are 30 times sweeter than sugar—yet virtually kilojoule free. Our modern food manufacturers extract steviol glycosides from these leaves, then refine them into a white powder—a process that results in table sweeteners, such as Natvia and Hermesetas SteviaSweet, which are 200 to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar and, like other artificial sweeteners, don’t elevate blood-sugar levels.
Stevia has a somewhat bitter aftertaste, much like licorice. This means it can supply only part of the sweetness of a processed food or beverage and remain palatable. Consequently, food manufacturers tend to use a blend of stevia and sugar to lower a product’s overall energy content. Well-known products that contain this sweet combo include CSR Smart White Sugar Blend, Pepsi Next, Lipton Ice Tea and the Schweppes range of flavoured mineral waters.
However, stevia supplies only about a third of these products’ sweetness, with traditional sugar providing the rest—so these foods aren’t entirely kilojoule free.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) approved the use of steviol glycosides (stevia extracts) as a food and beverage ingredient in 2008. Since then, there has been no evidence to suggest that stevia is harmful. And this sweetener has been the subject of scientific testing for safety for more than 25 years.
Some food labels clearly state ‘sweetened with stevia’, but you can determine whether it’s been added by checking ingredients lists for its additive number, 960.
According to a 2013 US study from Yale University, artificially sweetened products can actually fail to trigger the brain’s all-important satisfaction pathways in the way sugar does. This finding suggests that our choosing low-kilojoule sweet products as pick-me-ups may prompt us to subsequently reach for high-kilojoule alternatives to hit that sweet satisfaction spot.
Other research reveals that if we adopt just one healthy behaviour (like swapping sugar for a sweet substitute in coffee), we tend to feel entitled to more dietary wriggle room, and are then more likely to tuck into a bag of chips or a big chocolate brownie. Of course, this isn’t exactly an even trade-off!
The many uses of stevia
You’ll find stevia in low-kJ drinks, such as soft drinks, juices, cordials and iced teas. These often contain a blend of stevia and sugar to lower their total kilojoule content.
Stevia can replace sugar in tea or coffee. It’s available in various forms, including tablets, granules and powder.
Homemade cakes and desserts can be sweetened with stevia to reduce their sugar content. However, as stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, stevia-based baking products combine a small amount of stevia with bulking agents so that cooks can use them to replace sugar, cup for cup.
The bottom line
Although sweeteners have their place, it’s a good idea to look at the proportion of sweet foods in your diet. There’s a wide range of flavours to savour!
1 tsp sugar = 80kJ (19cal) vs
1 tsp stevia = 4kJ (less than 1cal)