Sugar substitutes: What is Stevia?

A growing number of products – particularly sugarfree drinks – are beginning to use a natural sugar substitute called Stevia, rather than the artificial sweeteners that have traditionally been used to reduce calories from our diet. We take a look at where Stevia comes from and whether it’s any better for you just because it’s natural…

What is Stevia?

For anyone looking after their health and their figure, the only sugar substitutes available that were widely known until recently were the artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin. Stevia is an all-natural plant extract that has been used for centuries by South Americans as a herbal remedy and natural sweetener. Other natural sweeteners include honey and agave nectar.

The reason sweeteners hold fewer calories than standard sugar, is because they are many times sweeter – in Stevia’s case, around 200-300 times sweeter! This means even just a few drops can go a long way – a pinch of it in powder form is equivalent in sweetness to a teaspoon of table sugar.

There is room for confusion though, as although Stevia is a natural ingredient, it can still sometimes get processed and refined. However, this is all about making better choices and finding lower calorie, healthy alternatives to regular white sugar without compromising on the sweet flavour we like in our drinks and treats. Stevia contains no calories or carbohydrates and doesn’t raise blood sugar so it’s ideal for diabetics; for these reasons, it’s being hailed as the sweetener of the future.

FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) approved Stevia as an ingredient for food and drinks back in October 2008 so it’s been around Aotearoa for a number of years already. It’s also widely used in Japan, Korea and China, where a number of artificial and chemical sweeteners are actually banned.

Brands are jumping on board the Stevia train

Stevia is gaining recognition as a healthier choice when it comes to sugar substitution – especially in beverages. Water brands Zerowater and H2GO have both brought out ranges of flavoured waters, and Ch’i has a zero sugar version of their herbal mineral water which uses Stevia. Household brand Just Juice also recently released a low sugar fruit drink range in New Zealand using the natural sweetener, with 50% less fruit sugar than what you would find in regular Just Juice.

If you want to use it in your own drinks and baking at home, Stevia is available from many health food shops and a growing number of supermarkets in liquid, powder or tablet form.

Image / Just Juice

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