What’s the story with stevia?
A few years ago we had never hear of the stuff, and all of a sudden it’s in everything— sodas, juice drinks, yogurt, and of course those little green and white packets of Truvia and PureVia that are already outselling pink-packeted Sweet-n-Low and baby-blue Equal. Supermarkets can’t restock it fast enough, and coffee bars have taken to keeping it behind the register because it has a habit of disappearing by the hand-full.
The big driver behind stevia’s growth is its position as a natural alternative to aspartame, saccharin and other chemically derived sweeteners. Fans of stevia say that its taste is closer to sugar than other sugar substitutes. It pours out of the packet in convincing crystal-like granules, not in a powder, and when it’s sprinkled on top of cereal it crunches like sugar crystals. It even has a sweet cupcake icing kind of smell. But is it as natural as its marketers claim?
‘Natural’ is a largely unregulated word.
But it’s one that casts a powerful spell over consumers. Stevia is itself a plant. It’s a member of the chrysanthemum family that’s native to Paraguay where the potent leaves have been flavoring food and drink for centuries. Stevia leaves are a high intensity sweetener with sweetening power estimated to be three hundred times more concentrated than table sugar. It’s calorie-free and has a glycemic index approaching zero making it safe for diabetics. The exchange-traded agribusiness concern Stevia Corp refers to it as “the holy grail of sweeteners.”
But stevia leaves aren’t what’s ending up in sweetener packets.
It’s a curious coincidence that both Truvia (a Cargill/Coca Cola partnership) and PureVia (from the Pepsi folks) use the same analogy and nearly identical language to explain stevia manufacturing. Both refer to it as much like making tea in which dried leaves are steeped in water to release the flavor. In fact Coca Cola’s patent application for Truvia identifies more than 40 steps in the process and includes acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, isopropanol, and erythritol—a mouthful of ingredients that includes chemical solvents, flammable liquid fuels, and numerous substances derived from genetically modified corn.
I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I make my tea.
You can buy truly natural stevia. There are organic suppliers of whole and powdered leaves, and the branded product Stevia in the Raw is a processed form but without the corn-based additives. In it’s pure form stevia is a powerful sweetener but with a hint of a bitter licorice aftertaste that all the processing and additives seek to mask. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t taste like sugar.