Nearly half of American households use some kind of artificial sweetener, says a 2007 study conducted by Packaged Facts, a market research firm. Until now, the choice of artificial sweeteners was confined to saccharine, aspartame, and sucralose. Each sweetener has over time, developed a strong fan base that stays loyal to its brand. Getting the faithful to switch brands has proved tough for all three, and they have tried. Fans that develop a taste for the unique flavor of each sweetener rarely give up their brand, and have been unwilling to experiment with other brands. Until now, that is.
Stevia, a plant extract sweetener is of course one of a new breed of sweeteners threatening old loyalties. The green color of its packet refers to the fact that it’s a natural sweetener, a fact that already gives it an edge over other sugar substitutes. The Food and Drug Administration of USA has blocked stevia for many years, although it’s very popular in Japan and other countries. But it finally gave away to pressure exerted by the American Herbal Products Association, giving stevia its approval. Several companies have started using stevia, marketed as PureVia and Truvia, in their drinks. Coke’s Sprite Green and Trop 50 from Tropicana, a subsidiary of PepsiCo also use stevia as a sweetener. Besides, stevia is also being blended with other sweeteners, including good old sugar to create flavors that are more sugar-like and natural.
Stevia is five times costlier than the cheapest sweetener available in the market. Its extraction requires specific procedures and cautions. Unless extracted from the right part of the leaf, processed properly, and mixed with bulking agents in the right proportion, it ends up tasting like licorice or menthol.
There are other sweeteners that are being used solely or in conjunction with sugar in foods and beverages. Aspartame is being blended with potent neotame, a sweetener that is 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. Acesulfame potassium or Ace K was blended with aspartame and used in Coke Zero. These days it’s not uncommon to pick a drink bottle and find in it sugar and sweeteners combined together to produce a unique taste and sweetness. The days of high fructose-based syrup beverages are fading away fast.
The artificial sweetener market is worth $1.2 billion annually. The war among the players is fierce and even extends to packaging. Splenda, the dominant player with a 60% market share, comes in yellow packets. It is being challenged by a combination of aspartame and sugar also marketed in yellow packets in a brand called NutraSweet Cane. This one already has a celebrity endorsement of sorts – Oprah’s former personal chef, Art Smith, has created recipes using this sweetener.
Despite the popularity of these artificial sweeteners, there has been no let up in their scrutiny. While saccharine was believed to increase the risk of cancer, aspartame is also under suspicion for causing a host of health complications, including neurological damage. But nothing has been established conclusively thus far. Doctors, researchers, and health professionals agree that these sweeteners may be harmless.
However, the fear of even a tiny health risk has not been not ruled out completely. These risks have not been able to deter lovers of artificial sweeteners, who only seem to differ by the brand they use. Whether artificial or natural, these sugar substitutes are not going away any time soon.