Humans are evolutionarily adapted to like sweet tastes, after all they signify high calorie, energising sources of food that are essential for survival. Bring the clock forward to today however and the proliferation of sugar-rich foods not available during our ancestors’ time is slowly killing us. The NHS states that our daily energy intake should not include more than 10% from sugars. And that includes sugar found in processed food, fruit and soft drinks not just what you sprinkle on your cereal or coffee. This amount works out at 70g of sugar for a man and 50g for a woman with all the usual caveats of this depending on age, body size and physical activity of course. 50g of sugar equates to 13 teaspoons or two cans of fizzy drink or 8 chocolate biscuits.
This is where health conscious dieters come in. How do we get the sweet taste without the calories? Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin have been around since the early 1900s and mid-1960s respectively and both are calorie free, highly sweet chemicals that are used as food additives and in products such as Canderel. They haven’t been socially accepted as the answer to sugar due to health scares and erroneous links to cancer. But mud sticks and the worries of safety now persist over the use of artificial sweeteners.
Stevia rebaudiana is a plant that grows naturally in Brazil and Paraguay where its leaf extracts have been used medicinally for centuries. Stevia is the name given to this extract – its sweetness coming from naturally occurring glycosides. These glycosides (stevioside and rebaudioside) are around 150 times sweeter than sugar meaning you don’t need very much to get the same effect. They are heat-stable so are good for baking with or cooking with although they don’t caramelise like sugar. Commercially it has been used as a sweetener in Japan since the 1970s. In the States it was approved by the FDA in 2008 and the European Union in 2011. Since then a slew of stevia-sweetened products have hit the shelves in a fanfare of sweet too-good-to-be-true heaven. The soft drinks introduced launched sugar-stevia blends of Coca Cola (‘Life’) and Peps Cola (‘True’) backed by major aspirational marketing campaigns aimed at those who wish to have the same sugary taste but fewer calories.
Pros and Cons of Stevia
Stevia is a calorie-free sweetener that is ideal for those looking to go on a low refined-carbohydrate diet.
Its zero glycaemic index is ideal as a sugar substitute for people with diabetes.
The sweet taste takes slightly longer to register on the tongue and some extracts can leave a liquorice-like aftertaste.
Stevia sweeteners are typically at least twice as expensive as their counterparts
Nothing is known of long term effects arising from stevia use or high stevia intake
Weighing up Baking with Stevia
While stevia is a boon to bakers wishing to reduce sugar levels in their food, the tiny amounts needed means that the missing mass of the sugar needs to be replaced to ‘bulk out’ the ingredients. The bulking agent or agents need to be considered carefully if they’re not to reintroduce different types of sugars or unhealthy fats back into the mix. Egg whites, yoghurt and fruit purees are typical replacements. If the mix already uses something like dried fruit in a fruit cake you could simply increase the amount of fruit.
Is Stevia a truly Natural Sweetener?
Marketers would love you to believe the hype but there’s more to it than that. Firstly, just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe or better: Thinking of all the naturally occurring poisons and venoms in the plant and animal kingdoms attest to that.
Brands such as Truvia also contain sugar alcohol in the form of erythritol. Pyure (a word play on ‘pure’) contains dextrose, a starch-derived form of glucose. So if you are looking for a truly sugar free sweetener you need to double check the ingredients on any pre-packaged stevia product.