let's face it, no matter howmuch we may want to break the sugar habit, nine times out of 10 sweet stuff tastes too good to pass up.
But what if you really could have your cake and eat it too? A member of the daisy family native to Paraguay and known to the indigenous Guarani as "ka-hee' may just deliver. Europeans call it stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) and have isolated sweet compounds in its leaves called stevioside and rebaudioside. Stevioside is said to be up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar.
Stevioside and rebaudioside contain no calories, do not contribute to tooth decay and don't seem to exacerbate blood sugar control problems in diabetics, although clinical trials have yet to be done to directly prove this.
While a few people report allergic reactions, the rest of us can use it to sweeten tea, lemonade, ice cream, chocolate, cookies and puddings; it won't work in yeasted baked goods because yeast has to feed on sugar.
But you won't find stevia in commerical food products. The Canadian government has strict regulations on food additives and stevia has not been cleared.
The same situation exists in the U.S. In Japan, by contrast, stevia represents 41 per cent of the sweetener market and is found in pop, candy and baked goods. There's no scientific evidence that stevia has any harmful effects, but the expensive studies required by the feds have never been done.
Concentrated stevia extract is available in white powder or clear liquid form (120 cubes for $7 to $8; 20 grams of powder about $9; and 42 fluid ounces, enough to last a long time, $22). Take it from me, water-extracted stevia, available in either powder or liquid form, tastes best. Chemical- or alcohol-extracted versions can be unpalatable. Start with a tiny amount and sweeten to taste; one teaspoon of powder has the whallop of a cup of sugar.
"We don't object to the sale of stevia leaves to people who might want to make a tea or whatever. But if you extract the compounds for food-additive use, there needs to be testing. We don't know that stevia is unsafe, but we don't know that it's safe either.'
"I have it in my garden. I'm planning to try it in ice creams. I thought I'd try combining it with licorice."
Michael Stadtlander Chef, Eigensinn Farm
"We're planning to come out with a diabetic line of foods that will use stevia. With stevia, you have to adjust all the other ingredients. In baking, sugar draws water (but stevia doesn't.) We have to do a lot of test runs."
Vegetable Kingdom Organics
"We currently use stevia in Japan -- not in our core brands, like Coke, but in some of our secondary products. In the U.S. it's not allowed as a food additive. We aren't asking for the regulations to be changed at the moment."
Coca-Cola head office
"A cup of tea with stevia after a meal harmonizes digestion. It helps with sugar cravings, since it helps balance blood sugar, and helps my clients get off anti-nutrients like Aspartame."
Lianne Sparling RNCP, nutritionist
"You can ascribe a little bit of (stevia's lack of approval) to ignorance, a little bit to conspiracy and a little bit to government rules and regulations.'
Natural products consultant