Stevia: Coming Soon to a Coffee Cup Near You?

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The face of sweeteners is changing rapidly. And never mind things that are just wrong, like Splenda with Fiber.

Apparently, it’s a natural option, stevia, that could be the real future of non-sugar sweeteners.

Stevia is a no-calorie sweetener derived from a plant, and it’s been coming on like gangbusters since December 2008. That was when the FDA for the first time proclaimed pending products using the substance to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. Before that, its use in products was banned, and it was only available as a “dietary supplement,” unpermitted to be advertised as a “sweetener.”

According to a new study by Mintel, a leading market research company, stevia sales have climbed to the point where it will break $100 million in sales this year. Further, the firm believes stevia sales could reach $2 billion in 2011.

The question is . . . why? The obvious answer is for calorie counters and those with insulin issues, particularly consumers that prefer something derived more from a plant than a chemical plant.

Many accounts describe stevia as having a bitter aftertaste. Personally, and more problematic, in my first few samplings of the stuff it tasted like wintergreen gum. One notable instance ruined a cup of cherished Blue Bottle Coffee from the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market, several years ago.

While the Mintel study indicates I’m not alone in my initial impressions, a full 11% told the research firm that “they have tried stevia and plan to continue purchasing it.” That’s a pretty big number for such a foul taste, and it squares almost perfectly with recent findings that stevia sales represent about 10% of the tabletop sugar substitute sales.

And it may keep growing. Stevia made today may be different than the sludge I used years ago. The “Blue Bottle Incident” was before Cargill and Coca-Cola teamed up for Truvia, and before Pepsi and Merisant threw their collective hat in the ring with PureVia. Neither is pure stevia; both incorporate sugar alcohols and other ingredients. Since it’s these giant corporate concerns that have catalyzed stevia sales, largely by figuring out and utilizing the least bitter part of the plant, perhaps it’s incumbent on doubters who want it to be the holy grail of dieting to give it another shot.

And I did.

A side-by-side comparison with Truvia and one of the legacy stevia brands (which I won’t incriminate, but had to be found at a natural foods shop) really points out how far the sweetener has come. The latter is still cloying, sludgy, and tastes like my least favorite flavor of gum. The Truvia . . . well . . . in juxtaposition with the legacy brand, it’s delightful. Standing on its own merits, it’s passable. The bitter taste is still there, albeit greatly muted. Thankfully, the wintergreen effect is gone completely.

It seems that if the ingredients you’re mixing the stevia with have strong flavors of their own, like mint teas or lemonade, it might be okay.

Coffee? Meh. While tolerable, it’s definitely noticeable, and distracts from the experience. Still, Tab was popular with a generation of fans despite the infamous saccharine aftertaste, and stevia’s not nearly as bad… and it’s natural to boot.

With the increasing emphasis on diet wonder products and ever-burgeoning concern over chemicals, stevia’s sure to be a fixture at your local cafe, if not your own cupboard, soon enough.

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