A natural alternative to sugar – Stevia

(First published May 2007, updated January 2011)

If you’re looking to get away from sugar for health or environmental reasons; Stevia might be a great ultra-low calorie, more earth-friendly alternative for you.

The demand for cane sugar has seen vast swathes of land degraded over centuries. According to the WWF, sugar cultivation has been responsible for considerable soil erosion, habitat destruction, pesticide and herbicide poisoning of water and eutrophication caused by nutrient and waste runoff. Refining of sugar also presents environmental issues – see my article on white sugar vs. raw sugar.

For most people, it’s health and dieting issues that lead them to use sugar alternatives; and the products most often turned to are aspartame and saccharin. Aspartame is the chemical most widely used now, present in large quantities in diet soda and many other processed foods.

In regards to saccharin; one of its components is phthalic acid. Aside from being a sweetener ingredient, phthalic acid is used in plasticizers and for surface coatings. It’s a substance that has created considerable water pollution in China. Saccharin has already been banned in some countries.

Aspartame doesn’t appear to directly create environmental problems; but when ingested; it breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol. Phenylaline can cause problems for some sensitive people, but methanol is the bigger concern. The methanol breaks down further into formaldehyde, then to formic acid, both known carcinogens. It poisons us and what we excrete poisons the environment.

The major concern with aspartame is the scale of its use. If you take a close look at the ingredients in many of the food items in your cupboards, and not just sweet items, you may be surprised to see how many contain aspartame.

The health problems associated with aspartame are currently being hotly debated. Aspartame is big business and there are many powerful players keen to see that it remains that way.

There are many more natural alternatives to cane sugar including Brazzein, Curculin, Erythritol, Fructose, Glycyrrhizin, Glycerol, Isomalt, Lactitol, Mabinlin, Maltitol, Mannitol, Miraculin, Monellin , Pentadin, Sorbitol, Stevia, Tagatose, Thaumatin and Xylitol. Most of the names of those sound fairly frightening, but many are derived from fruit and plants, including Stevia.

Stevia, which is also known as sweetleaf, honeyleaf or sugarleaf is a herb from South America that is said to be a couple of hundred times sweeter weight for weight compared with cane sugar. To put that into context, a teaspoon of refined Stevia powder is about the same as a cup of sugar in terms of sweetening ability. It contains no calories and refined Stevia products have no bitter after-taste.
Stevia is not a new discovery, it’s been in use by the Guarini Indians of Paraguay for medicinal and sweetening purposes for 1500 years and has been used extensively for decades in Japan.
When I originally published this article back in 2007, some countries still weren’t permitting its use as a sweetener – including Australia; so I had a very pleasant surprise to see a Stevia product sitting in our kitchen  a couple of weeks ago. It seems that Stevia was approved for use here in 2008. Stevia was also approved as a food sweetener the USA in the same year – it was previously allowed only under the classification “dietary supplement”. In Canada, it’s a available as a dietary supplement.

It seems the European Union is still deciding the acceptable daily intake for Stevia before approving it there.

Stevia is available as whole leaf, ground leaf, powders or a liquid extract; but in regards to the powder/liquid form; check the ingredients – sometimes other nasty chemicals can accompany it and to create liquid extract I understand to be quite an energy intensive process. The liquid and powder forms are the most potent, but even whole Stevia leaves are 20 to 30 times sweeter than cane sugar (but these may have somewhat of a licorice or slightly bitter after-taste)

Unlike aspartame, Stevia is stable when heated, so it can be used in a wide range of recipes requiring cooking.

Stevia is a member of the chrysanthemum family and a herb that can grow in poor soils. Stevia is a subtropical perennial and is a little water intensive, but given its potency it may be a plant that could be well suited to your own garden. Imagine having your “sugar” hit growing out in your back yard! Stevia plants have also been observed to have insect repelling tendencies – so it could be a perfect companion plant for an organic garden.

So there you have it – a seemingly healthier and more environmentally friendly solution for your sweet tooth that can also assist with pest control in your garden!

Oh, and it’s nice to be able to finally state that it tastes great!