It’s common these days to stumble upon one or the other study outlining the ill effects of sugar. A November 2017 report in The New York Times, in fact, reveals how the sugar industry in the 1960s buried research findings suggesting that sugar could be harmful. That sugar promotes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc, is common knowledge now—till 2015, there were around 415 million diabetics in the world, with India reporting around 69.1 million cases, as per the International Diabetes Federation. The harmful health effects of sugar were the reasons that led scientists to scout for substitutes, or artificial sweeteners. Saccharin—the first artificial sweetener to be synthesised by chemists Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg—was, in fact, discovered by accident in 1879. Since then, many new substitutes have been discovered—and then dissed owing to their side effects. After all, most popular artificial sweeteners available in the market today—be it aspartame, sucralose or saccharin—are basically chemicals produced in a factory. Some studies have even found them to be possibly carcinogenic.
It’s no surprise then that Lucknow-based nutritionist Aakanksha Khanna refrains from recommending any artificial sweetener to patients looking to go on a diet. “Saccharin is just another form of sugar. The only difference being that it doesn’t give an instant rush of energy,” the 33-year-old says, adding that saccharin, too, eventually gets converted into glucose in the body, negating the effects of avoiding sugar.
So does that mean there’s no escaping the harmful effects of sugar? Thankfully, no. Enter stevia, a sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant species, Stevia rebaudiana, which is slowly but surely occupying centrestage in the battle against sugar. What evidently seals the deal in stevia’s case as an artificial sweetener is the fact that it is zero-calorie, zero-fat and 100% natural. Native to South America, the plant is said to have been in use by the Guarani people in the region for centuries.
Journey so far
Coincidentally, Italian scientist Moises Santiago Bertoni came across a stevia plantation while conducting research in eastern Paraguay in South America. He first described the plant and its sweet taste in a botanical journal in the late 19th century and named it after the chemist Rebaudi who identified the plant’s sweet component. Since its discovery, the pros and cons of stevia have been the subject of several scientific studies, not all of which held out.
Interestingly, early testing, which aimed to validate the potential benefits of stevia, was unsuccessful, raising questions about its safety. It wasn’t until glycosides—which account for its sweet taste—such as stevioside and rebaudioside A/B were isolated from the plant, purified and made available for modern scientific testing by the 1930s that the world at large took any note of it.
Once the highly purified stevia leaf extract became available, several tests and clinical studies were completed, testing every aspect or side effect of the plant extract, from its impact on blood sugar level to whether it’s carcinogenic or not. Satisfied by the results, various food safety agencies around the world approved the use of stevia as a sugar substitute.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) categorised stevia leaf extract as ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’ (GRAS) in 2008, following which other governments around the world, too, gave it their approval, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), World Health Organisation, Health Canada, etc. “No study has been able to accurately claim that stevia is harmful to users whether diabetic or non-diabetic,” says physician Abhinav Agarwal, who considers stevia to be a better alternative than other artificial sweeteners in the market. “It may not help in reducing blood sugar levels, but in no way does it aggravate them either,” the Ghaziabad-based 38-year-old doctor says, adding that he does, however, suggest a moderate daily intake when it comes to using sugar substitutes.
Lucknow-based endocrinologist Debnondon Choudhary agrees with Agarwal. “A little amount of sugar is far superior to any artificial sweetener… stevia, however, comes as a close second alternative,” says the 56-year-old.
Adoption in F&B
Not just doctors and health professionals, the global food and beverage industry, too, is slowly waking up to the commercial possibilities of stevia. Many artificial sweeteners currently being used may soon be substituted by stevia, as per Ajay Chandran, senior director, global key accounts, PureCircle, a Malaysia-headquartered company that produces stevia sweeteners for the global food and beverage industry.
Chandran might be right. In 2015, global fizzy drinks giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo started offering stevia-based alternatives—Coca-Cola Life and PepsiCo True, respectively—in the US. These products are marketed as low-calorie alternatives with natural sweeteners and the same ‘great’ taste. On being asked if they plan to bring these products to India, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo refrained from commenting.
But how was stevia, also known for its bitter aftertaste, incorporated into these products? PureCircle, which was enlisted by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, had a big role to play in that. “Our research and development team grew multiple batches of stevia to narrow down on the plants with a sweeter-tasting leaf to bring down the bitterness in the next batch of plants,” explains Chandran.
PureCircle is now eyeing the Indian food and beverage industry and is in talks with a number of key players in the market, as per Chandran. It, in fact, collaborated this year with popular artificial sweetener brand, Sugar Free Natura (which uses sucralose and is available in almost every retail and online store in India), and launched a stevia variant called Sugar Free Green, which is available in the market now. But there already is a lot of competition in the Indian market, with many local pharmaceutical companies, such as Herboveda India, Herbo Nutra, Green Haven, Navchetana Kendra, etc, also in the playing field with their stevia products.
A major reason behind this sudden boom is growing awareness among people. “People weren’t cautious enough to use preventive products before, such as flaxseed oil, olive oil, etc, but there is definitely a change in that attitude,” says Dolly Kumar, director, Gaia, a company that manufactures health and fitness products such as yogurt, muesli, dietary supplements, etc.
Gaia’s products, made using natural ingredients, come in three ranges—sport, organic and lite—each designed for a specific user subset. “We source stevia from a Malaysian company. But to promote local suppliers, we have a technical collaboration with Herboveda India and also source from pharmaceutical company Kanha Biogenetic,” says Kumar, adding that acquiring stevia from Indian manufacturers is difficult, as their scale of production is not as high as required.