Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of new products coming through – or existing products being reformulated – using the relatively new sweetener, stevia. It’s being used as a sugar substitute in all sorts of things from yoghurt to drinks.
Stevia is a sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Stevia has been used for centuries in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to sweeten foods and drinks and is widely cultivated in Asia. The fresh leaves are reported to be 15-20 times sweeter than sugar, and extracts from the leaves can be up to 300 times sweeter – meaning you don’t need to use very much at all to get a sweet taste. Unlike sugar, it has hardly any kilojoules, and no impact on blood sugar. People who want to avoid artificial sweeteners like stevia because it is a naturally-derived product, coming from a plant. You can actually grow your own stevia plants, with seeds available in seed catalogues. Bulk stevia powder is available now in the supermarket for use in cooking, under several brand names.
So is this new sweetener the answer to our prayers of unlimited sweet things with no guilt, no sugar ‘addiction’ and no weight gain?
On paper, stevia does seem like a good option if you want to eat something sweet. Using stevia instead of sugar does cut the energy content, usually, of the food, and satisfies the desire for a sweet flavour. If you’re eating a lot of sugary foods or drinking sweet drinks, switching to stevia-sweetened ones would probably have a positive impact in terms of ‘energy in’ and could lead to weight loss.
But a better long-term approach might be to try and train your palate away from overly sweet foods in the first place. While I don’t believe that sugar is the toxic, evil substance of popular diet theories of the moment, it is not a good idea for any of us to have too much of it. And the issue with any kind of sweetener – natural or otherwise – is that it still encourages our natural desire for sweetness. In the modern food environment where high-energy foods, including those high in sugar, are everywhere, our sense of what is an everyday food and what is a treat food can also become easily warped, with the end result being we eat more of everything, sugar and stevia included.
When you’re used to eating a lot of sweet foods it can be tricky to cut them out, but take it gradually and just as with salt, you can adjust to eating less. If you’re a sweet drink lover, try switching to one of the stevia-sweetened waters or low-sugar iced teas as an interim step, then switch to plain water with sliced fruit in it. Do the same with sweetened yoghurt and cereal. Gradually, you’ll start to notice you prefer less sweetness, and you may also find you start to really notice and prefer the natural sweetness of fruit and other whole foods.