We’ve all seen the headlines: sugar is addictive; it’s dangerous; it’s making us fat. All of which explains the snowballing popularity of stevia, a natural, nearly kilojoule-free sweetener.
It’s easy to see why this particular product, which is derived from the leaves of a South American shrub, has been labelled a “miracle” ingredient. Coming in either liquid or powdered form, stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, it doesn’t affect blood glucose levels and has a negligible number of kilojoules.
While stevia has been consumed by tribes in Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil for centuries (and has been widely available in Japan for 30 years), it’s a relatively new ingredient in Australia, with the government only approving it as a food additive in 2008. Since then, a growing number of local and international food and beverage companies have incorporated stevia into everything from lollies and chocolate, to yoghurt and soft drinks.
Stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, it doesn’t affect blood glucose levels
and has almost no kilojoules.
Even the Coca-Cola Company, a business whose most famous product is synonymous with all things sugary, has embraced the new sweetener. Its newest product, Coca-Cola Life, features 35 per cent stevia in place of sugar. According to Katie Bayne, senior vice-president of Global Sparkling Brands, “There’s a growing group of people who love stevia,” adding Coke Life was developed to meet a global demand for naturally sweetened products.
However, not everyone is enamoured with this ingredient. Dietitian Simone Austin, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says consumers need to be wary of assuming that products using stevia are necessarily good for you.
“You don’t suddenly improve something that isn’t particularly nutrient-dense by adding stevia and removing sugar,” says Austin. “People think, ‘Oh, wow, I just put stevia in my cake, it’s so healthy now!’ and forget that there’s lots of white flour and fat and not much else in there. You’ve got to look at the whole picture.”