Stevia wonder: The plant that's a super sugar alternative – and free from calories and carbs

The sugar substitute comes from a plant that has been used as a sweetener for centuries in Paraguay and Brazil

It can be hard to keep up with all the bad news on sugar – or the smoking of our time as it's rapidly becoming known. It has become this generation's ticking time-bomb, leaving a trail of diabetes and obesity in its wake. Last week, the World Health Organisation added its voice to the fray, warning that sugar should make up just 5 per cent of our daily calorie intake, half what it had previously advised.

But help for the sweet-toothed – which, given that manufacturers spike even the most wholesome-sounding cereals with sugar, means practically everyone – is at hand

From their cupboard of substitutes, food science analysts report that salvation lies in a naturally sourced substance called stevia, which has no calories, no carbohydrates, and does not raise blood sugar levels. It comes from a plant that has been used as a sweetener for centuries in Paraguay and Brazil, and has been sold in Japan for about 40 years, yet the West has been slow to wake up to its virtues. Stevia-based products have only been approved as food additives since 2008 in the US, and since 2011 in the EU.

A recent report by Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research predicted that the value of such products, which are mainly manufactured by the food giant Cargill, would soar to $275m by 2017 from $110m in 2013.

One drawback is that despite being between 250 and 300 times sweeter than sugar, some people find it has a slightly bitter, liquorice-like aftertaste. But companies are getting round this by blending it.

Tropicana recently launched a juice made including stevia, halving the number of calories per serving. And Coca-Cola is poised to launch its stevia-sweetened alternative to Coke across the world. It already sells a version of Sprite that includes stevia.

Laura Jones, a food science analyst at Mintel, said: "Stevia is the one to watch. It's still early in the innovation process, but it will become more appealing as new variants are released. Consumers want to cut sugar in their diets but not compromise on taste, plus they want to move away from anything artificial, so the appeal of plant-derived products is much stronger."

People are increasingly avoiding artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and acesulfame K. But dieticians warn this is a mistake. "There are some misconceptions that they're dangerous but there is no evidence that any are harmful," said Cara Sloss, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association.

Some consumers may dislike their taste, but they don't pack anything like the calorific punch of sugar, which has 400 kilocalories in every 100 grams. The use of intense sweeteners in food and drink product launches has grown from 3.5 per cent in 2009 to 5.5 per cent in 2012, the same report found. The global market for all sweeteners as additives in food manufacture was worth more than $2bn in 2012.

Other natural alternatives include the fuzzy, green, melon-like monk fruit, once cultivated by Buddhist monks in China. It is already used in the US, where analysts believe it could help to revive the flagging diet soda sector.

The "main message", though, says Ms Sloss, is that we need to cut down. "It's about re-educating your tastebuds, because we know sugar is addictive."

Stevia has no calories, no carbohydrates, and does not raise blood sugar levels Stevia has no calories, no carbohydrates, and does not raise blood sugar levels Grow your own 'sugar'

Stevia may sound like it's made in a laboratory, but it is in fact a plant that anyone can grow at home. Yet strict EU rules mean that it can't be grown for domestic human consumption in the UK – even though gardeners in the US can do so – and can only be cultivated as an ornamental herb. But there are other options for people who want to grow their own "sugar". Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata), can be used as a sugar substitute – the seeds and dried leaves can be added to fruit pies and crumbles, while the flowers, and even the roots, are also good for salads or cooking. Gardener Sarah Raven says the plant adds a "gentle aniseed flavour" to dishes.

Jane Merrick

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game