Stevia is a plant that has been used as a sweetener in Brazil and Paraguay for centuries, but now it has found its way into Britain’s supermarkets. Hailed as a “miracle sweetener”, stevia is praised for its claimed health benefits and natural origins.
Ever since the sweetener was approved as a food additive in 2011, companies have been quick to capitalise. There was an incredible 400% increase in stevia-based products worldwide between 2008 and 2012. Even Coca-Cola has embraced the sweetener, replacing sugar with it in their Sprite recipe, resulting in an impressive 30% reduction in calories.
You can now find stevia-based sweeteners in a range of products including chocolate, yoghurt and even beer. Sugar giant Tate & Lyle have also been quick to respond with a sugar-stevia hybrid.
Refined sugar is often linked to obesity in the media, and according to Dr Laura Wyness (senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation) stevia has the potential to help with not only the rise in obesity, but with dental health and diabetes.
So far, so good. But what makes stevia different to artificial low-calorie sweeteners like saccharin? The biggest (and most marketable) difference is that it comes from a natural source, and even though it has been highly processed by the time it reaches our food/drink, it is not artificially created.
While there has been no scientific evidence that artificial sweeteners are bad for our health, many consumers like to avoid anything artificial. The British Dietetic Association and Diabetes UK have made no distinction between their advice for artificial sweeteners and stevia.
Critics argue that we do not yet know the long-term effects of stevia, whether or not it affects hormone balance or if the brain is tricked into releasing more insulin (potentially negating any weight-loss benefits).
After all is said and done, at the moment stevia is unlikely to replace sugar thanks to its unique aftertaste and high price point. Health conscious individuals and nutritionists alike can only hope that further research into its health-benefits and long-term effects can be carried out.
If you want to find out more about the benefits of certain health foods, speaking to a nutritionist could help. For more information, please see our Healthy Eating page.
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