By: Kerrin Rourke and Sonia Caltvedt
September 18, 2006
Stevia, also called sweet-leaf or honey-leaf, is a medicinal plant indigenous to South America, where it has been used for centuries to sweeten foods and beverages by the Guarani Indians. An estimated 280 species of stevia now grow wild in North and South America. However, the only species with the sweetening properties that have attracted so much attention to the herb is Stevia rebaudiana.
Despite the challenging regulatory obstacles that stevia products have faced over the past 15 years, sales continue to climb year after year in both the natural and conventional markets. Currently, sales of stevia and medicinal tea with added stevia total $14.4 million in the natural channel, up 32 percent over the prior year. Total dollar sales are lower in the conventional channel, but they have grown nearly twice as much in the same period—63 percent over the prior year to $3.6 million. (Figures are for the current 52 weeks ending July 15, 2006, in SPINSscan Natural and Conventional channels.)
From Latin America to Asia, stevia is used across the globe as a natural and safe noncaloric sweetener. For example, the herb accounts for 40 percent of the sweetener market in Japan, where artificial sweeteners have been banned due to strict food-additive regulations. Stevia has been used in Japan for roughly 30 years with no reported negative effects.
Stevia is almost completely free of calories, making it a wonderful natural alternative to synthetic non-nutritive sweeteners such as sucralose, acesulfame-K and aspartame, which many natural consumers tend to avoid. Stevioside and Rebaudioside A are two chemical components present in stevia.Together, they give the plant a taste that is 200 to 300 times sweeter than refined sugar, without a single side effect, according to an HerbalGram piece by Mark Blumenthal (35:17, 1995).
Besides being a natural alternative to sugar, stevia has a number of other healthful benefits that make it an ideal sweetener for anyone with blood sugar issues. Rebecca Wood, author of The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia (Penguin Books, New York, 1999), noted stevia has traditionally been used to balance glucose levels, because unlike refined sugars, it does not cause spikes in blood sugar. Blood sugar regulation is increasingly important to U.S. consumers; witness how sales of products addressing diabetes total nearly $1 billion across retail channels, and have increased 25 percent (SPINSscan Natural and Conventional channels).
Due to its regulatory action on the pancreas, stevia also helps to support proper digestion and appetite. Regular use of the herb can help minimize hunger sensations and cravings for sweets or fatty foods. In addition, stevia has an anti-fungal effect and can be used to combat topical fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. It is ideal for Candida sufferers, as it does not feed yeast or other microorganisms. It also has antibiotic properties that have been shown to prevent oral bacterial conditions, specifically cavities and gum disease.
During the late ’80s, stevia was quickly gaining momentum as a popular sweetener in the United States. Around the same time, an anonymous firm lodged a trade complaint with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), stating stevia was being used as an unapproved sweetener in the products of a successful tea company. As a result, FDA banned its import in 1991, and changed its classification from a food to a food additive.
This change in classification was a blow to producers. Foods do not need pre-market approval before they enter into the food supply, as they are automatically considered safe. Food additives, however, must undergo expensive toxicological research studies in order to meet FDA’s safety requirements. While owners of patented food additives are guaranteed big profits because of their lack of competition in the marketplace, stevia would be impossible to patent. As soon as the herb was approved for sale as a food additive, anyone could manufacture and sell it as a sweetener. Understandably, manufacturers were reluctant to invest millions of dollars on product research that cannot promise a return on the investment.
Since 1992, The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) has submitted at least two petitions to FDA challenging stevia’s status as a food additive. Even though the petitions contained extensive data and research that proved the safe historical use of stevia as a food, FDA did not file either petition for public comment. The agency reportedly was not satisfied with the research submitted because the studies were conducted outside the United States and published in foreign journals.
In September, 1995, FDA finally lifted its fouryear import ban on stevia. However, the reintroduction of stevia to the United States was limited to its sale as a dietary supplement, and prohibited its use as a sweetener or flavoring ingredient in any food products.
Today, stevia is sold in most natural foods stores in the supplement department. It is available in several forms, including packets and powder, as well as plain and flavored liquid. Although it has been banned for sale as a sweetener, savvy consumers still purchase stevia for this use. Unlike aspartame, stevia is heat stable up to 392°F.However, baking with stevia is not the same as baking with sugar. The molecular structures of the two sweeteners are completely different. Sucrose (sugar) will caramelize when heated, giving baked goods a brown crust that helps in determining when cookies, cakes and pastries are done. Stevia, on the other hand, does not have this browning quality. Cooking times may differ from traditional recipes, and ingredient measures are not the same. Since stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, a teaspoon may be enough to equal a cup of sugar, depending on the strength of the herbal extract.
As more studies question the safety of non-natural sweeteners like sucralose, acesulfame-K and aspartame, consumer demand for safe non-caloric sweeteners is increasing considerably. In spite of federal regulations limiting the sale of stevia products to supplements and medicinal teas, the herb continues to grow in popularity amongst natural and mainstream consumers alike.
Kerrin Rourke is natural products expert and Sonia Caltvedt the assistant manager of marketing and communications with San Francisco-based SPINS, a leading market research firm. SPINS is a leading provider of industry reporting and consulting services for the natural products sector. SPINS’ comprehensive offering includes retail measurement services, content-based reporting, consumer information and consulting services. Learn more at www.spins.com, or contact the company (415) 957-4400.