What is Stevia?
Stevia is a plant from the chrysanthemum family that is native to regions of north eastern Paraguay. The sweetness of the stevia plant has been used for hundreds of years as a regular part of the diet in some parts of the world, in particular in South American regions. Traditionally, the plant leaves were dried and used to sweeten maté, teas and medicines, or chewed as a sweet treat.
The sweetness of the stevia plant comes from steviol glycosides. These are extracted from the leaves of the plant and purified to produce a high purity extract that may be used as a sweetening ingredient in many foods and beverages or as a table top sweetener. It is approximately 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose), and therefore only small amounts are used.
The term stevia is used synonymously to describe either the stevia plant itself or its extracts, the composition of which can vary depending on the manufacturing process and therefore between products using this sweetener. Both stevia leaf extract and steviol glycosides come from the leaves of the stevia plant.
Is Stevia sweetener safe?
Food safety and regulatory agencies around the world have determined stevia to be safe for consumption. Japan was the first country to commercially adopt the use of stevia in the 1970s. Stevia has now also undergone thorough review by expert committees and regulatory bodies in Europe and other Western countries, including the USA, Australia and New Zealand. All have concluded that steviol glycosides are safe to use, and the European Food Safety Authority has established an acceptable daily intake (ADI), which is a safe level of intake over a lifetime.
What is Stevia sweetener used for?
Stevia sweeteners can be used in a variety of foods, including non-alcoholic drinks, yoghurts, ice cream and flavoured milks. It can also be used for the production of confectionery, and other sweet foods such as jams, jellies, fruit spreads and desserts. Baked goods are generally not permitted to use any high-potency sweeteners in the EU, but steviol glycosides are stable to baking processes and can be used, together with natural bulking agents, to replace sugar in home-baked products.
Due to regulatory restrictions stevia extracts cannot usually completely replace the entire sweetness that levels of sucrose typically used in foods and drinks provide. Therefore, it is expected that steviol glycosides will mainly be used in combination with other sweeteners – in products that only use natural sweeteners it will be combined with sugar. This means that stevia sweeteners will replace some of the sugar content of a product, therefore reducing its calorie content. This has already been done in a number of food and beverages applications.
What could be the benefits of replacing some of the sugar with Stevia?
Overweight and obesity are now major public health issues and are associated with a higher risk of chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Overweight and obesity are a consequence of an energy (calorie) intake that is higher than energy expended over a prolonged period of time. Replacing some of the sugar in the diet with a low-calorie sweetener can help reduce energy intake and therefore aid weight management. Steviol glycosides have been studied in clinical trials with people with diabetes. These studies have shown that they are safe and appropriate for use by people with diabetes since they do not affect blood sugar or insulin levels.