Few aspects of health and nutrition have garnered more controversy than the issue of sweeteners. As many people search for an alternative to sugar with its high calorie content, their focus naturally turns to plant sweeteners. Although a variety of artificial sweeteners have been approved by the FDA, they are still mired in controversy. Many people believe these sweeteners have a sour side to them and eagerly seek natural alternatives, particularly sweeteners derived from plant-based sources. What plant sweeteners are currently available and what does the future hold in terms of using plants as sweetening agents?
One of the most popular plant sweeteners currently available are those derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant which contain the sweet glycosides known as stevioside and rebaudioside A. Although until recently, these components haven’t been improved for use as sweeteners by the FDA, the FDA has allowed them to be promoted as “nutritional supplements” rather than sweeteners. Often marketed under the name of Stevia, these plant sweeteners have gained popularity among the health food crowd as an all-natural way to sweeten food and drink.
Although approval of Stevia by the FDA has been slow due to conflicting study results in rats suggesting the potential for mutagenicity, approval was granted for two forms of sweetener from the Stevia plant in December of 2008 to be used in products manufactured by Coca-cola, and Pepsi. Most data suggests that plant sweeteners from the Stevia plant are safe and they’ve been used in Japan and Brazil for many years without apparent harmful effects.
Another plant sweetener that’s growing in popularity is agave syrup. The thick, sweet syrup is produced by squeezing the juice from the Agave tequilana plant. The juice is then heated to turn the carbohydrates into sweet sugars which are then concentrated. The predominant form of sugar in agave syrup is fructose which has aroused some controversy due to some studies showing negative health effects from consuming too much fructose. It does appear to have a lower glycemic index than most natural sweeteners including honey and sugar. Agave syrup can be found at most natural food markets.
Although the selection of natural plant sweeteners currently available is rather limited, there are a variety of sweet tasting plants being studied for use as sweetening agents. The components of these plants known as terpenoids and phenols have the potential to serve as sweeteners although it may be years before they’re approved for use in this country. Plant sweeteners may have taken a step forward with the FDA approving the Stevia based sweeteners for use in beverage products.