Stevia has been on a long journey from Paraguayan sweetener to global phenomenon. It took over 15 years for the chrysanthemum herb to be classified as a sweetener by the FDA after initially being erroneously labelled as causing cancer in 1991. It seems to be an almost miraculous solution to having sweeter, yet still relatively healthy foods, as it has no calories and no sugars that are digestible into the bloodstream.
Its sweetness comes from a type of sugars called stevial glycosides which, unlike those found in table sugar, cannot be digested in the foregut. These glycosides are instead broken down and eaten by bacteria in the large intestine and are not absorbed into the body. The seemingly only detractor to the use of stevia as a sugar substitute is its bitter aftertaste caused by the compound stevioside. That issue is becoming less and less over time as the stevia powder bought from stores is not the same as powdered stevia leaf. It is a mix of compounds extracted from the leaves of the plant engineered to contain less stevioside and more of the compound rebaudioside A. Rebaudioside A is comparable to regular sugar in taste and intensity, disguising the aftertaste of the stevioside, which is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar.
Though there isn’t anything wrong with stevia itself there is a drawback to foods that contain stevia such as diet foods or drinks. Often to counteract the signature bitter aftertaste, some products contain both stevia and regular sugar and market themselves as ‘stevia sweetened’.
The issue with low-calorie sweeteners
Low-calorie sugar substitutes all have a common shared fault, they are too sweet. When we use sugar substitutes it is easy to be gung-ho with the amount we consume as they are perceived as healthy. In truth sweeteners are only ‘healthier’. This results in us eating more sweet foods and often foods are sweeter with the addition of the substitute than they would have been if regular sugar were used. Over time this repeated overstimulation of our sugar receptors has a negative impact on how we perceive other flavours. Less intensely sweetened foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables become less and less appealing as we crave more sweetness in our diet. It also tricks us into not associating sweetness with the high calories that sugary foods typically have. These factors combine to steer us away from making healthy choices in regards to our diet, potentially causing greater harm.
Is sugar really so bad?
Sugar isn’t some kind of demon. Like many elements that can be found in a healthy diet, sugar is only an issue when consumed in excess. Unprocessed foods that naturally contain sugar such as fruits are packed with nutrients and have a generally low GI making them healthy overall. The real issue is additionally sweetened products that have high amounts of sugar with a low nutritional yield. For the elderly, whose appetite typically deteriorates with age, sugar can be an essential source of calories and glucose to remain healthy. So, those delightful sugary treats may be doing our elderly loved ones good after all.