Question: What is this new sweetener called stevia all about?
Answer: Stevia sweeteners are extracted from the leaves of a plant found in Central and South America that is part of the Aster family.
There are a numerous plants that are part of the genus stevia and the leaves from the species stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni). Bertoni are unique in being powerfully sweet -- so much so that the common name for the plant is candyleaf.
The sweet component extracted from these leaves is highly purified and said to be 200-300 times sweeter than sugar and to have a slightly bitter aftertaste, something like black licorice.
You'll see it referred to as a "natural" sweetener, and that is just because it comes from a plant. It is also calorie free.
The specific stevia extract that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as "Generally Recognized as Safe" is a highly purified component called Rebaudioside A, also known as Reb A and rebiana.
This sweetener has been shown to be safe through a wide range of safety studies in animals. No adverse effects have been reported in human clinical trials. Research on this sweetener is ongoing, and at this time there is no clear evidence of health benefits or advantages in humans.
This new calorie-free sweetener is now in products such as soft drinks, water beverages, and low-calorie orange juice. It is being looked at for use in a wide variety of foods, so watch for it in products like yogurts, cake mixes and ice cream, among others.