As stevia products vie for shelf space along with other sweeteners, staffers at the Detroit Free Press wanted to know how the plant-based sweetener stacks up. So, we tested a handful of no- or low-calorie sweeteners and sugar in an unscientific taste test of a plain cookie, ice tea and lemonade.
The five people on the panel didn't have a clear favorite but did offer some insight.
Three cookies were tested: one made with sugar, one with a Splenda blend recommended for cookies, and one with Sun Crystals, a blend of sugar and stevia extract. Taste tasters said the cookie made with regular sugar was the best. But the cookies made with the stevia and Splenda blends weren't far behind.
Breanna Pettinga, 30, of Grosse Ile, Mich., ranked the Splenda blend as an excellent cookie —"very dense, almost like shortbread."
Linda Burke of Clinton Township, Mich., 57, a diabetic who typically uses Equal and occasionally Sweet'N Low, liked the stevia-blend cookie.
"It was nice and crunchy," said Burke. "The Splenda blend had no aftertaste, but it was less sweet than the regular sugar cookie."
Edward Burke, Linda's husband, gave the stevia-blend cookie the same high marks he gave the sugar cookie, saying it was "very good with no aftertaste."
Jon Puskarich, 52, of Armada, Mich., who never paid much attention to artificial sweeteners until being diagnosed with diabetes in March, found that the stevia blend cookie "had not much taste."
For the iced tea, we used sugar, Equal, Sweet'N Low, SweetLeaf stevia and Splenda. Four of the testers gave the highest marks to the tea made with Sweet'N Low.
Joyce Williams, 63, of Gibraltar, Mich., liked the tea sweetened with Equal, which she regularly uses.
"It wasn't overly sweet, which is good," said Williams. "Sometimes it's too sweet of a drink, and that is not refreshing to me."
The stevia tea got average marks.
The lemonade made with Sweet'N Low got the highest marks. But the stevia-sweetened lemonade was right behind it.
"It had no aftertaste and is a little sweeter than the lemonade with Equal," said Linda Burke.
Overall, panelists gave stevia good marks for taste and sweetness and said stevia had little or no aftertaste, unlike some of its rivals.
"If you can cut back on calories, you are doing something to reduce your disease risk," says Tom Rifai of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac, Mich. "With diabetes, cardiovascular and cancer diseases, many are associated with excess calorie intake."
But Rifai cautions that using artificial sweeteners in a baked good such as a cookie "doesn't turn that cookie into berry."
All about stevia
What is stevia (STEE-vee-uh)?
A sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant, a shrub native to South America.
How sweet is it?
It's 300 times sweeter than regular pure cane sugar.
Has the government approved its use?
The Food and Drug Administration gave its nod of approval in 2008.
Stevia is derived from a shrub known for its sweet leaves, grown mainly in Paraguay and Brazil. It's the rebaudioside-A (Reb A) extracted from the leaves that the FDA certified for use as a food and beverage additive.
Since then, sales and the number of food and drink products that contain stevia have exploded. Since the start of 2010, 102 new products sweetened with stevia have been launched.
Are there any health concerns?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has concerns that there was not enough testing done on stevia.
"It's probably safe for people to use it to sweeten their coffee and other things," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist. Schardt says there are suspicions that it might cause mutations in DNA, which can lead to cancers.
"We are not saying it does," says Schardt. "We are saying that further testing was needed; that is the function of our organization."
How will I know whether a product contains it?
Look for the words rebiana, Reb A or stevia extract in the ingredient list.
What brands of stevia are there and who makes them?
* Truvia, from a joint venture of Coca-Cola and food manufacturing giant Cargill
* PureVia, from a joint venture of Pepsico and Whole Earth Sweetener (whose parent company is Merisant, maker of Equal)
* SweetLeaf Sweetener, from Wisdom Natural Brands
* Stevia Extract in the Raw, from Cumberland Packing, the maker of Sugar in the Raw and Sweet'N Low
* Sun Crystals from McNeil Nutritionals (maker of Splenda), a blend of pure cane sugar and stevia extract.