Stevia - natural or artificial sweetener?
I'm not sure how it began, but there is a misconception about stevia among some lay people and even science writers that requires urgent rectification. I often see stevia, in print and conversation, included among artificial sweeteners.
If the argument is that stevia is processed, well what sweetener isn't? Unless you're cutting your own sugar cane and dripping it directly into your coffee or onto your cereal, your sucrose is processed. Unless you're removing it from a beehive, your honey is processed. So it goes on and on for all naturally-derived sweeteners. Stevia extracts come from the leaves of the stevia plant. I do not know how else to explain that this is a natural sweetener if the fact that it's a plant doesn't!
The extraction method is not that dissimilar to that of cane sugar, which firstly uses water but then requires the addition, and consequent removal, of chemical compounds for clarification and sedimentation (Stevia Shantanu 2018).
It is possible there is 'fear of the unknown' at play here, so to that end I will try to provide some information which may help put stevia into it's proper camp of 'natural sweetener' once and for all.
Stevia Rebaudiana is part of the Asteraceae family of plants which includes daisies, sunflowers, artichokes and dahlias. Native to South America, it has continuously been used extensively by the native people of Paraguay and Brazil for medicinal as well as sweetening purposes for hundreds of years (that we know of).
Stevioside and rebaudioside A (Reb A) represent 5–10% and 2–4% weight/weight (dry) of the leaves, with the latter being the sweetest of the two better known compounds. However, there are several other glycosides such as rebaudiosides B, C, D, E & F, dulcoside A, rubusoside, and steviolbioside (Goyal, Samsher & Goyal 2009)(Ashok, Singh & Dhyani 2011).
Reb A is used as a sucrose substitute by the food industry, whereas stevioside is said to have therapeutic applications for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, prevention of cavities, and high blood pressure (Bariocanal et al. 2008)(Das, Dang & Gupta 2009)(Abou-Arab, Abou-Arab & Abu-Salem 2010)(Preethi et al. 2011), though more research is needed.
Besides steviol glycosides, Stevia Rebaudiana has more than 100 phytochemicals and other compounds including numerous di- and triterpenes, tannins, steroids, flavonoids, b-carotene, minerals including chromium, cobalt, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc and phosphorus, vitamins including riboflavin and thiamine, as well as caffeic and chlorogenic acids (Bakar et al. 2014).
As anyone that has ever bought stevia powder knows, extracted Reb A is very fine, so it is often paired with a crystalline 'carrier' in order to resemble table sugar as much as possible. The easier we make substitution, the more likely it is to be adopted.
The most often utilised carrier is the sugar alcohol erythritol, which is another natural sweetener derived from birch trees or corn. A well known supermarket brand is Natvia.
By far the biggest complaint about stevia is the after taste. To some it tastes bitter, but I am clearly one of the lucky ones, because even though there is definitely an after taste, it is nothing but pleasant to me. You will never know until you give it a go, and there are differences in Reb A quality among brands, so you might have to try a few. If you have a sweet tooth and/or struggle to control your blood sugar, stevia is an excellent substitute.
If you really want to start an argument, just ask people what they think of coriander aka cilantro! I love it, my mother despises it, many say it tastes like soap. Sounds like a good subject for a future article about our tastebuds...
Abou-Arab AE, Abou-Arab AA, Abu-Salem MF 2010, 'Physicochemical assessment of natural sweeteners steviosides produced from S. rebaudiana Bertoni plant', African Journal of Food Science, vol. 4, pp. 269–281.
Ashok KYS, Singh D, Dhyani Ahuj PS 2011, 'A review on the improvement of S. rebaudiana [S. rebaudiana (Bertoni)]', Canadian Journal of Plant Science, vol. 91, pp. 1–27.
Bakar S, Rahman MMR, Hossain MA, Rashid MA 2014, 'Phytochemical screening and comparative antimicrobial potential of different extracts of Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni leaves', Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Disease, vol. 4, pp. 275–280
Barriocanal L, Palacios M, Benitez G, Benitez S, Jime´nez N, Rojas V 2008, 'Apparent lack of pharmacological effect of steviol glycosides used as sweetener in humans. A pilot study of repeated exposures in some normotensive and hypotensive individuals and in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics', Regulatory Toxicology & Pharmacology, vol. 51, pp. 37–41.
Das K, Dang R, Gupta N 2009, 'Comparative antimicrobial potential of different extracts of leaves of S. rebaudiana Bert', International Journal of Natural & Engineering Sciences, vol. 3, pp. 65–68.
Doherty, WOS, Fellows, CM, Gorjian, S, Senogles, E and Cheung, WH 2003, 'Flocculation and sedimentation of cane sugar juice particles with cationic homo- and copolymers', Journal of Applied Polymer Science, vol. 90, no. 1, pp. 316-325.
Goyal SK, Samsher, Goyal RK 2009, 'Stevia (S. rebaudiana) a biosweetener: A review', International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 1-10.
Preethi D, Sridhar TM, Josthna P, Naidu CV 2011, 'Studies on antibacterial activity, phytochemical analysis of S. rebaudiana (Bert.)— An important calorie free biosweetener', Journal of Ecobiotechnology, vol. 3, pp. 5–10.
Stevia Shantanu 2018, New Extraction Methods, https://www.steviashantanu.com/new-extraction-methods>