The next big wave in sweeteners is set to crest this year, with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo on board and extracts on the shelves already available next to Sweet’N Low and Splenda at your favorite grocery store.
But get this: You can beat the soft drink giants to the punch by growing your own.
It’s Stevia rebaudiana, a member of the Chrysanthemum family native to the rain forests of Brazil and Paraguay. In its raw form, it’s 30 times as sweet as sugar, with zero calories, zero carbohydrates and zero glycemic index. Extracts of the plant are so sweet – 200 to 300 times as sweet as sugar – that it has to be blended with a carrier ingredient.
Stevia was given a Generally Approved as Safe rating by the Food and Drug Administration as a sweetener just four months ago, but it’s been used in soft drinks in Japan for more than 30 years and has been sold as a supplement in U.S. health food stores for more than a quarter of a century.
The founder and CEO of a Gilbert-based company lays claim to being the first person to introduce the natural sweetener to the U.S. Jim May of Wisdom Natural Brands imported stevia and Yerba Mate, a tealike beverage derived from another South American plant, in 1982, May said.
His SweetLeaf Stevia is superior in taste and health properties to those coming on the market from Coke, Pepsi and other corporations, because he uses only purified water and filters to produce it, May said.
“Everyone else uses solvents and chemicals, including methanol and ethanol, and because they’re getting their stevia from China, where they process it with chemicals and solvents,” May said. “We get our stevia from South America, and because we’re not using anything but purified water, I can guarantee that it’s the very best and very finest tasting stevia in the world.”
PureVia contains erythritol, a sugar alcohol naturally found in grapes and melons, and isomaltulose, a natural dissacharide found in honey and sugar cane juice, said Katie Wood, a spokesperson for PureVia, a partnership of PepsiCo and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company.
Erythritol and isomaltulose are produced through natural fermentation, Wood said.
TruVia, which was co-developed by Coca-Cola and Cargill, also contains erythritol.
All come in a variety of forms, and, like other sugar substitutes, can also be adapted for cooking and baking.
Though registered dietician Maya Nahra wasn’t ready to pronounce SweetLeaf as the world’s finest, she does prefer May’s sweetener to others she’s sampled, said Nahra, Health and Wellness Educator for Sunflower Farmers Market.
“We’ve carried SweetLeaf as a supplement, and I think it falls right into the class of date sugar and agave nectar as a natural sweetener that is a great alternative to sugar,” Nahra said. “And what’s great about it is you can also grow it in your garden and use it just like you would with herbs like basil.”
Harlow Gardens, 5620 E. Pima St., has sold stevia plants, which usually become available in April and May, for about six years, said Carolyn Smith, bedding manager and garden wizard at Harlow’s. Stevia plants are available at several other local nurseries and garden centers, including those at Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Stevia is “relatively easy” to grow in containers and in the ground, Smith said. The best exposure for the plant is one that allows morning sun and afternoon shade, she said.
“I’d say the mistake most people make, myself included, is keeping the plant too wet, because you want to let it dry out a little between waterings,” Smith said.
The leaves can be eaten fresh, steeped in a tea or dried and then crumbled, she said.
While the plant will grow here, a lot of Arizona gardeners lose their stevia plants at two critical points, May said.
“The first frost of the fall is probably going to kill them, and the first really hot and dry Arizona summer say is also probably going to kill them,” he said.