Following up on a piece we ran a few months ago that cited research showing the potential market share expansion of stevia among tabletop sweeteners, I’ve been pondering the appeal and practical application of the natural, plant-derived sweetener. Probably a little too much.
See, there’s nothing I want to like more than stevia. Saving on calories and avoiding sugar highs and subsequent crashes would be great, especially in lieu of the current mass market substitutes, which threaten (whether conclusively or not) cancerous or other growths and health side effects.
But, as I opined last time, stevia—even as improved from it was a few years ago in products like Truvia—still kinda has that wintergreen/paste aftertaste thing happening. I concluded that strong flavors may serve to offset that factor; a coworker of mine swore that a strong mint tea could stand up to the stevia effect. It makes sense.
That theory is increasingly being put to the test in consumer products such as sodas. Being that diet soda is my second-most-consumed beverage (after coffee, naturally), and importantly a possible growth segment of the U.S.’s roughly $200 billion nonalcoholic drinks market, I thought it would be a good idea to put my tastebuds on the line and sample a couple.
First up — the Jamaican Ginger Ale “Free” from Blue Sky, part of its recently introduced, zero-calorie, Truvia-sweetened “Free” line.
It was the perfect candidate for a taste test, ginger ale being among my favorite sodas, and often possessing a strong, gingery flavor that might stand up to stevia’s aftertaste.
On balance, it mitigated, though did not eliminate, the aftertaste. The ginger ale flavor was good, though it could stand to have a little more of that lovely ginger heat. What’s more distracting, though, is the sweetness is muted, like when you are eating something flavored with sugar alcohols rather than sugar. Lo and behold, sugar alcohols figure prominently in the ingredients, specifically Erythritol. Which at least doesn’t inspire the gastrointestinal chaos that other sugar alcohols do.
Zevia’s Cola, the other stevia-sweetened soda I tried, relies on Erythritol as well — and the muted sweetness is really distracting without a bold flavor like ginger to balance it. On the other hand, I could barely detect stevia’s signature sludge-taste , so bonus points. Zevia doesn’t use a branded stevia, which I thought would be a negative. It turns out this independent, Seattle-based company knows sweetening with stevia better than the big boys’ brands, Truvia or PureVia (Coca-Cola and Pepsi, respectively).
Again, the real problem with Zevia Cola was the muted sweetness and lack of any powerful flavor. It was as akin to a “cola berry”-flavored carbonated water as it was to soda. Fairly refreshing, fairly pleasant, but not satisfying in the same way that a Coke Zero is, for instance. I doubt I’ll purchase it again.
THE KICKER: However, there’s a saving grace. Much as it improves life in general, these stevia-based sodas were improved significantly by booze.
A cheap dark rum from Trader Joe’s mixed with the Blue Sky Ginger Ale “Free”, plus some lime juice, to make a super delicious knock-off Dark & Stormy. A little Royal Crown (Canadian whiskey) proved sweet enough and added enough character to the Zevia Cola to make me forget I was partly drinking a new age, natural beverage.
So there you have it. Stevia soda is not quite there yet, but if you are anti-sugar and anti-chemical sweetener, there are pretty decent options out there. And if you blow $5 on a sixer of Zevia and you decide it’s atrocious? Turn to the bottle.
(Ed. Note, June 21, 2010: For a short update on OO’s stevia-imbibing adventures, please check out this entry from Osmosis Online’s official blog)