By far the most common word appearing in reviews of sweeteners for food and drinks is “avoid.”
The reasoning is multipronged. That sugar, and especially high-fructose corn syrup, have been shown to pose health risks. That sugar alternatives such as aspartame or agave nectar, while tasting great, are associated with other risks such as liver damage or, simply, high sugar content; honey is high in calories as well. Or that artificial sweeteners should be avoided altogether as who knows what harm they can do to the body?
And so it goes. There’s a long list of alternatives to sugar. Many of them are good enough choices. Some are well suited to adding to drinks but not for baking. Some are putoffs because they are associated with unhealthy drinks such as soda or just because of unfamiliarity—how many sugar alcohols (which don’t contain alcohol) can you keep track of with all the -tols: sorbitol, arabitol, mannitol, erythritol, xylitol?
The obvious question is, do any of the sugar substitutes emerge as all positive? Well, yes, one does. Stevia, a natural herb, is a consistent recommendation among scientific, medical, nutritional, and tea discussions. There’s nothing particularly distinctive about it, which is a positive. And its chemistry, nutrition, and health attributes are sound. The most important thing is that it tastes enough like sugar. The rest can be safely ignored.
Stevia originates from Central and South America, with Paraguay and Brazil the main sources. It’s now also grown in China and Japan. It’s been in occasional use in cooking since the 16th century. It is legally termed a “zero calorie” sweetener, although it has a miniscule level, with zero sugar, fat, vitamins, fiber, or sodium. What it has in overload is sweetness of taste: It is rated 200–300 times sweeter than sugar.
Sweeteners are very much a convenience item. Sugar packets are portable, compact, and quite profitable to sellers. The main argument against using honey as a sugar substitute is that it is messy and bulky. Stevia is convenient in its powdered form. This makes it an attractive ingredient for herb teas as well as tea drinks. Furthermore, it can be grown at home and handled as just another botanical to mix into herbal recipes. Several tea brands at the high end of the flavored and herb tea market are selling stevia tea bags, which add their own sweetener source.
There are several branded variants of stevia, mostly notably Truvia. This is made from rebiana, a molecule extracted from the stevia leaf that is combined with erythritol. Truvia is also on many reviewers’ “avoid” lists for a reason that is a common concern in the food-health link: distrust of large corporations. Comments include that it’s not natural, really, and that you don’t know the manufacturing process, and that FDA oversight of such products is lax.
More and more tea brands are offering stevia-based products. There is no other sweetener highlighted rather than hidden in the ingredient list (unlike many ultrasweet chai latte mixes). While saccharine and aspartame are the food industry’s high-volume sweeteners because they are used in so many foods, the direction is not toward more inclusion of them in new products. So, stevia looks to be the sweetener to adopt not avoid.