In a world where diabetes and bulging waistlines are reaching epidemic proportions, food makers and consumers are increasingly on the lookout for a solution to the sugar 'problem'.
For those who want to make a healthy change whilst keeping their sweet tooth intact, artificial sweeteners are seen as the way forward.
While there are already a host of products to choose from one sweetener in particular, stevia, has recently won a host of big endorsements.
Earlier this year beverage maker Nudie joined many of its peers in releasing a new range using stevia, and soft drink giant Pepsi recently used the additive in the Australian release of its low-sugar Pepsi Next.
The sweetener, derived from the stevia plant, has built up a small but loyal following over the years and advocates say it's the 'natural' alternative to the more popular artificial sweeteners like Saccharin.
But this natural claim is one of many controversies that still surrounds the product, with health concerns, political disputes, and taste problems hampering its progress, especially in overseas markets.
To this day stevia accounts for only a small share of sugar-free products and remains unknown in some consumer circles.
But with large brands increasingly incorporating it into their sugar-free products we're likely to be drinking and eating more of it in the future, and analysts say its popularity will only grow stronger.
The stevia plant. Image: Flickr
What's in a name?
In Australia stevia is regarded as a natural sweetener, and brands like Nudie have embraced the plant in order to stick with a 'nothing but fruit' message.
But Euromonitor International analyst Lauren Bandy said nitpicking over stevia's definition continued, and the European Union still banned products using it from making natural claims.
“Steviol glycosides, the sweet compounds of the stevia leaf, are not consumed as a food on their own and are added to food and beverage products to perform a technical function,” she said.
“Therefore, by definition stevia is an additive, and cannot be labelled as a 'natural ingredient' in the EU.”
Apart from its use as an additive, the argument behind stevia's naturalness also stems from how the plant is processed.
Steviol glycosides are extracted using solvents and resins, and the process is performed on an industrial scale quite different to the 'natural' environment some consumers imagine.
Nevertheless the product has gained a relatively healthy perception closer to home, and Bandy said its popularity was rising, despite growth moving slowly.
“We forecast growth rates for stevia ten times higher than those of its competitors aspartame, saccharin and sucralose,” she said.
“That said, in absolute terms the stevia market remains relatively small.”
A range of sugar-free sweeteners already exist, and have a much larger market share compared to stevia. Image: Flickr
Health concerns haven't been the only roadblocks to a wider adoption of stevia.
While most of the issues have since been ironed out, in its early days stevia battled a more practical problem related to a bitter after-taste, which still exists in products for some consumers.
On the more technical side, stevia sweeteners hit different parts of the palate compared with sugar, and manufacturers have had to work hard to balance the flavours.
Overall stevia has a slower onset and longer duration than sugar, and one analyst told Food Magazine the product had to be mixed with another sweetener, such as saccharin, in order to mimic the full effects of sugar.
They also said the stevia/saccharin mix was particularly attractive for soft drink makers looking to make zero-sugar products.
So far brands in Australia have largely avoided this mix, preferring to use stevia by itself in order to market products as 'naturally sweetened'.
In the case of Pepsi Next, the soft drink giant has elected to mix stevia with sugar to retain taste whilst boosting the health profile.
So far stevia has been unable to mimic the full taste of sugar. Image: Flickr/ Uwe Hermann
The final word
While the wider debate around natural and artificial sweeteners will no doubt continue, stevia has long since received approval from Australian regulators, and its influence continues to spread through local products.
Nevertheless scientists and health experts remain divided on the issue.
Just last month a paper from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research suggested sugar-free drinks may actually increase the risk of diabetes.
But our own regulators have found no problem with the product, and have even marked it as a possible growth area for local farmers.
Overall most research shows such innovations don't intend to act as a replacement for a balanced lifestyle, and artificial or not, sugar-free products can't replace a healthy diet.