All About Stevia

Stevia is touted as an all-natural zero-calorie sweetener. Is there any downside?

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
5-minute read
Episode #44

A couple of months ago, I did an episode on the pros and cons of artificial sweeteners such as Equal and Splenda. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of listener questions about stevia, another zero-calorie sweetener that has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Is stevia is the penalty-free sweetener we’ve all been waiting for?

Although some new stevia-based sweeteners have just come onto the market, stevia has actually been around for quite a while. For eons, actually. Stevia is an herb that hails from South America. Its leaves taste sweet but contain virtually no calories.

Although stevia leaves were used as a sweetener by indigenous South Americans since pre-Colombian times, it was “discovered” by Europeans in the early 20th century. Since then, it’s been cultivated and used as an alternative sweetener—particularly in Asia. The Japanese first identified the several chemical compounds that give stevia its sweet taste and pioneered the extraction and purification of these compounds.

Stevia has been used in Japan for decades to sweeten beverages, condiments, candies, gums, toothpaste and mouthwash. It’s been slower to catch on in America. But late last year, the FDA approved a couple of stevia-based sweeteners for use by food manufacturers. And now some new stevia-sweetened foods and beverages, as well as some new sugar substitutes like TruVia and PureVia, are being rolled out with a lot of fanfare.

Just How Natural Are These New Sweeteners?

One of the things you hear about stevia-based sweeteners is that they are natural. Now, if you were to crush some fresh or dried stevia leaves into your tea, you’d have a truly natural, zero-calorie sweetener. And if you’d like to try that, you can buy green powdered stevia leaves as an herbal supplement at the health food store. You could even try growing a stevia bush in your garden.

But you might not like the way natural stevia tastes. It will sweeten your tea but it also has a sort of herbal, licoricey flavor and a slightly bitter aftertaste. To overcome this, green stevia is often refined into a snowy white powder—not unlike the process used to refine sugar cane into the white crystals we recognize as table sugar.

You can find refined stevia powder or liquid extract with the herbs and dietary supplements at a natural foods store. It has less of the characteristic plant flavors—but it still has some aftertaste. In fact, to me it tastes an awful lot like saccharine. It is extremely potent. I have a small bottle of stevia powder that I bought in the 90s. I use it every now and then to sweeten iced coffee, lemonade, or smoothies and I still have a third of a jar left!