The accidental discovery of aspartame, in a medical laboratory, is almost as legendary as that of Pfizer’s Viagra. Less fabled is Stevia’s arrival in the public consciousness: a naturally sweet leaf, it was used by Guarani Indians in South America at least 1500 years ago, and was known of in the Western world 100 years ago, with sugar producers registering concern as to its potential impact.
So, there were high hopes for stevia when it was introduced to the UK in November 2011. Naturally sweet, and calorie free, it was seen as a perfect ingredient in tackling the obesity crisis, and successive regulators - starting with Japan, then the US and now the EU - have sanctioned its use.
In the UK, there have been quite a lot of stevia-based launches, including table-top sweeteners such as Truvia and Pure Via as well as Britvic soft drinks, Tropicana’s Trop50, and a stevia version of Sprite. I’ve even seen stevia used, on the Continent, in upmarket gelaterias.
“If I were to put money on the next big sweetener, it would be xylitol”
Adam Leyland, Editor
Unfortunately, stevia has failed to catch on and, with low sales, as we report fixtures have been reduced, lines delisted and Merisant dropping Pure Via in the UK to focus on a stevia version of Canderel. That’s no surprise to me. For all its qualities, stevia has a strong liquorice aftertaste that’s not easy to mask (though it would be perfect in, say, Liquorice Allsorts). While there are many who also dislike the chemical aftertaste of aspartame, sales of £1bn per annum suggest it is neither as divisive, nor as intrusive to the average tastebud, as stevia.
If I were to put money on the next big sweetener, it would be xylitol. It’s not the best name. It sounds even more chemical than aspartame (and, again, was developed in a lab). But it has some great qualities. As well as half the calories of sugar, there are proven dental health credentials, and with a glycemic index of 7 (vs 100 for sugar) it’s commonly used by diabetics. And this week, Total Sweet, a xylitol-based sweetener previously sold as Perfect Sweet, began rolling out to Tesco stores - having already secured listings with Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
Even on its own the aftertaste is barely discernible. Mixed into sweets, puddings, cakes etc, you can’t taste the difference.