1 May 2009

Foodwatch with Catherine Saxelby

Stevia to the rescue in the noncaloric beverage business

Catherine Saxelby

Zero-calorie sweetener, stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) hit the headlines in the Wall Street Journal in December 2008 with the announcement that the FDA were approving two rebiana-based sweeteners (from rebaudioside A, a highly purified extract of stevia) as being safe for use as a general purpose sweetener in foods and beverages. Australia’s food regulator, FSANZ, had granted approval earlier in 2008.

Cargill is marketing its rebiana-based sweetener Truvia with Coca-Cola; Merisant is working with PepsiCo with their version, Purevia. Both have developed non-nutritive tabletop sweeteners from it.

In what they expect to be the first of many new low- and zero-calorie beverages sweetened with Truvia, Coca Cola has launched a reduced-calorie version of Sprite, called Sprite Green, in the US. Odwalla, also owned by Coke, has added two new reduced-calorie juice drinks to its product line – Mojito Mambo and Pomegranate Strawberry. Apparently not all flavours taste good sweetened with stevia. Citrus flavours taste the best – so we may not see Coke Zero with stevia.

Rebaudioside A – stevia extract

Not to be outdone, Pepsi has three flavors of a stevia-sweetened zero-calorie SoBe Lifewater in Fuji Apple & Pear, Black and Blue Berry, and Yumberry Pomegranate with added vitamins as well. They’ve also just brought out an orange-juice drink called Trop50 with 50% less sugar and calories and the juice of freshly squeezed oranges.

Why the interest in stevia? It’s all part of a move away from aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet) and acesulphame K towards more ‘natural’ substitutes for sugar for diet drinks. Despite being cleared twice by food authorities, aspartame has been plagued by persistent internet rumours linking it to brain cancer and Alzheimer’s that refuse to go away. Trop50, for example, replaces Tropicana's previous Light 'n Healthy orange juice beverage that was made with an artificial sweetener.

Stevia and blood glucose Stevioside does not appear to affect blood glucose levels, good news for those with diabetes. The human body does not metabolise the sweet glycosides and they pass through and are eliminated, so the body does not obtain any kilojoules/calories. You’ll see it sold as a white powder, a liquid extract or as tablets for tea or coffee. It has a slight liquorice flavour. It works well in beverages or yoghurts but not in biscuits or muffins as it can’t duplicate sugar’s ability to add bulk and contribute to the golden-brown colour of baked goods.

So far, so good. If you’re after a non-kilojoule sweetener that’s more ‘natural’, stevia hits the spot. It will be interesting to see how well its safety remains over time and how consumers take to the taste of these new drinks.

Background on stevia Native to South America, the leaves of this semi-tropical shrub are around 30 times sweeter than cane sugar but without the kilojoules/calories. As a herb, the leaves can be used fresh or dried – less than 2 tablespoons of crushed dried leaves can replace a cup of sugar, although it’s hard to be specific as actual sweetness can vary. You can buy stevia leaf powder online from specialty spice merchants such as Herbies Spices (www.herbies.com.au). Ian Hemphill says ‘use sparingly as there is a bitter aftertaste if too much is added to food.’

Catherine Saxelby is an accredited dietitian and nutritionist and runs the Foodwatch Nutrition Centre. For more information on stevia and healthy eating, visit www.foodwatch.com.au.


D. Stone said...

I am a type II diabetic and I switched to Stevia powder at least two years ago. While it is true it can't be used in baked goods, I use it for virtually everything else. It's a different taste than sugar, but once you become accustomed to it sugar doesn't taste as good. I also mix the extract powder with filtered water in a small bottle with an eye dropper and keep it in my purse for dining out. I wouldn't go back to cane sugar or any of the substitutes now.

J.S. Sandha said...

I agree with D. Stone. As a designer of low calorie foods, I have successfully experimented with stevia to make Sweetener drops (in a pen), Sharbet (Indian Summer Drink), Low Calorie (herbalized) health drinks, Herbalized tea leaves, and, ofcourse, Biscuits (www.steva.co.in). While stevia does well in all the other items, it doesnt relace sugar that well in biscuits. We are making do with added maltodextrine.

Ian Eisenberg said...

Excuse the self promotion, but my company www.zevia.com markets a stevia based diet soda. Zevia is the only all natural 0 calorie soda in the market. No aspartame or sucralose and it is DELICIOUS. Cola, Orange, Twist, Root Beer, Ginger Ale & Black Cherry. We have recently gained national distribution. Please email me if you would like samples to review ian at zevia dot com.

Nickie Dumke said...

This is my first blog post (ever, on any blog), but I wanted to ask Ian a question. Also, please excuse this self promtion, but I have been baking with stevia off and on for over 15 years. It DOES taste different, but I've found that if you pair it with other strong flavors, it's O.K. Of course, my baking is food allergy baking, and we're already eating things that taste vert different like quinoa, so maybe my "clientelle" is just more tolerant of the new tastes. For more information, go to www.food-allergy.org.

Ian, I emailed you at your website last week and never got a reply so I hope you'll see this post. I bought some Zevia root beer last week. I agree with you, it tastes wonderful, but it's an allergy problem for me. When I bought it I thought I could "get away with" the erythritol, in spite of being sensitive to corn, because I usually can take a little of the sugar alcohols, even corn-derived. Same for citric acid (corn + mold). Do you have any other ideas of what the problem could be?


GI Group said...

Thanks for taking the time to post Nickie. We have forwarded your comments to Ian and will post his reply in the next few days. We look forward to hearing from you again sometime.

Ian Eisenberg said...


I never got your email. Please resend it to ian at zevia dot com or call me at 800-230-2221

GI Group said...

Catherine Saxelby responds to the various comments on stevia.

"I played around with stevia powder from the health food shop a while back and found it very un-friendly. And I personally didn’t like the liquorice undertone – but sounds like this is something that’s quite individual as I know lots of people who adore that aniseed flavour in all sorts of foods.

But I didn’t think of simply mixing it with water to take with me as a lightly-sweetened drink when I’m out. Great idea.

And I agree that pairing it with a stronger flavour such as ginger or berry means any unpleasant after-taste is nicely disguised. So perhaps this is the way forward with stevia both for home-use and in commercial products.

With all sweeteners, the trick is finding the best end-use for it that complements its flavour profile and its functional properties. One sweetener won’t fill all needs. Combinations of sweeteners will also be a way forward – one provides the sweetness, the other the bulk or baking properties that sugar used to provide. All interesting feedback. Thanks so much."