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The Sweet Taste of Stevia

Stevia is a leafy, green plant that is native to South America. The botanical name for stevia is Stevia rebaudiana. It was originally used as a natural sweetener by indigenous populations in Paraguay and Brazil who called it “sweet herb”. Stevia has many benefits over sugar: it has zero calories, does not cause tooth decay and does not cause a spike in blood sugar.

Where Does Stevia’s Sweet Taste Come From?

Unlike artificial sweeteners, stevia’s sweetness is naturally derived from over 40 compounds, known as steviol glycosides. These compounds are naturally found in the stevia plant. Most stevia sold in stores and used in products are purified stevia leaf extracts that contain one or more steviol glycosides. Sometimes individual steviol glycosides are specified in the ingredient list. Some commonly used steviol glycosides are rebaudioside A (also known as Reb A or Rebiana), rebaudioside D (also known as Reb D) and stevioside.

How Sweet is Stevia?

Stevia leaf extracts can be up to 250-300 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose) and are therefore considered to be high intensity sweeteners. Stevia leaf extracts are similar in sweetness intensity to many of the artificial sweeteners currently on the market (table 1).

Purified stevia leaf extracts can taste different depending on which steviol glycoside(s) is present and manufactures are actively researching the best tasting varieties. Some steviol glycosides such as rebaudioside D have a clean sugar-like taste. Others, such as stevioside, can contain off-flavors such as bitter, licorice-like and metallic. Whole leaf stevia extracts, which contain a full array of steviol glycosides, are usually a poor substitute for the clean sweet taste of table sugar. Since stevia leaf extracts are extremely sweet, a tiny bit goes a long way. Often, other ingredients such as erythritol, dextrose or maltodextrin are used to evenly disperse the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract. All high intensity sweeteners sold in grocery stores (i.e., sucralose, aspartame, saccharin) incorporate similar ingredients for this reason.

Where Can I Buy Stevia?

Many grocery stores sell purified stevia extracts in single serve packages for use in beverages such as coffee or tea. Larger bulk packages of stevia based sweeteners are also available. These are convenient for when larger amounts are needed, such as when cooking or baking. In the United States, sweeteners containing rebaudioside A have been available since 2008 and can be found under brand names such as PureVia®. Recently in 2016, Splenda® Naturals was introduced as containing rebaudioside D (Reb D). Some other popular brands such as SweetLeaf® are comprised of both rebaudioside A and stevioside. Global brands of stevia leaf extracts include Diabetasol (Indonesia), Finn (Brazil), Suganon (South Africa) and Spike (Malaysia).

Take Home Messages

  • Stevia is a natural sweetener made from a leafy, green plant native to South America
  • Stevia’s sweetness is naturally derived from compounds known as steviol glycosides
  • Purified stevia leaf extracts can be up to 250-300 times sweeter than sugar
  • Purified stevia leaf extracts are sold in grocery stores around the world under many different brand names