Sugar and Spice … And Stevia! Artificial sweeteners start to make way for natural alternatives

Americans are sweet on health-conscious diets these days. The demand for sweet-tasting, low-calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages steadily rises, and it is estimated that more than 180 million Americans regularly consume low-calorie and sugar-free products annually. Many synthetic sugar substitutes approved for food use in the U.S., such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose will likely soon be sharing the spotlight with natural sweeteners such as stevia, a promising natural sweetener alternative derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant.

A perennial herb native to Paraguay and Brazil, its leaves contain chemicals (glycosides) that may be up to 450 times sweeter than sugar. For centuries, native Paraguayans have used an extract of stevia leaves as a sweetener in a bitter drink known as maté. And now, Americans may become better acquainted with the natural sweetener in everything from coffee to tea to desserts! Stevia made its commercial debut in Japan more than 30 years ago as a sweetener in soft drinks, sugarless gum, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, dried seafood and confections.

Today stevia is grown commercially in Taiwan, Laos, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Brazil, Paraguay, Hawaii and even in the southeastern U.S. Stevia’s potential benefits vary, as its extract not only acts as a sweetener, but also as a non-caloric fiber source. Plus, it has been reported to possess many physiological and therapeutic properties. Stevia is not approved in the U.S. as a food ingredient. The FDA declared it to be an unapproved food ingredient in 1991, citing that the toxicological information was inadequate to demonstrate safety.

Although after the passage of DSHEA in 1994, FDA allowed importation of stevia for use as a dietary supplement. However, stevia is approved for food use in several countries, including Japan and much of South America.  Also, the United Nations World Health Organization and Food & Agricultural Organization’s deliberative body, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), extended its temporary approval of stevia use and is considering expanding current limitations upon production of additional safety data.

JECFA approval of stevia requires additional toxicity studies and human clinical trials. Other obstacles to successful commercial use of stevia include demonstrating consistency and purity of stevia extracts and overcoming its licorice aftertaste.  Meanwhile, stevia steadily gains popularity in the U.S. dietary supplement market and will eventually find a niche in the U.S. food and beverage markets.