Stevia rebaudiana
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Can we find all the tastes we like in the Wild?

While sugar and sugary products are increasingly consumed in the world,1 manufacturers of food are looking for new sweeteners, with fewer calories and whose safety would be proven. A sweetener can be defined as any ingredient used to improve the taste of food or drug, by giving it a sweet flavour. Since the onset of artificial sweeteners (saccharin in 1880), it is in the 1960s that these ingredients were widely introduced in our eating habits, notably with the major discovery of aspartame in 1965. Aspartame is now present in nearly 5,000 different foods, but the use of this synthetic molecule still remains controversial, as many scientific studies are still undertaken to prove its safety or eventually to establish its potential danger for human health. Inexpensive to produce, low in calories and having a great sweetness compared to table sugar (with sucrose being the sweetener molecule), synthetic sweeteners have now a place in our lives, allowing us to consume more sweets for fewer calories.

Agave tequilana
Agave is a cactus plant originating from Mexico. Photo: Juan Ignacio/Flickr.

Taking into account the current enthusiasm of people for the organic and natural products, the number of new natural sweeteners keeps on increasing (slowly but surely); they seem to be able to replace their predecessors of synthetic origins in a short future… These natural ingredients include notably honey, agave syrup, tagatose, and Stevia. Honey (whose antiseptic and antioxidant properties beneficial to our health are now well-known) is sufficiently complicated to produce, and especially has a too strong taste (thank goodness…) to be able to replace, at an industrial level, synthetic sweeteners.2 Agave syrup, extracted from the Agave tequilana plant originating from Mexico, also possesses a great sweetness and a low glycemic index; but as honey and fruits, it contains mostly fructose whose consumption must be moderate.

Tagatose (or galactulose) is a hexose present in milk which can be produced in large quantities by isomerization of galactose. In addition to probiotic and antioxidant properties, it could be helpful to treat type 2 diabetes by reducing the amount of glucose in the blood; it may also promote weight loss, as well as an increase of HDL cholesterol rate3 (the “beneficial” cholesterol transporter). However, its current use is limited to 1% in beverages, and 10-60% in foods (depending on the type of food considered, e.g. energy bars lighter, sugar-free chewing gum…) despite this food ingredient was recognized as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in 1999.

Stevia rebaudiana
Stevia plant, a shrub coming from South America. Photo: lskrida/Flickr.

Stevia is extracted from a South American shrub, Stevia rebaudiana, and corresponds to the glycoside rebaudioside A. This glycoside has a sweetening power 300 times greater than sucrose and does not provide any calories.4 While it is consumed in Japan for over 30 years, it is still struggling to settle in Europe. Its safety having not been demonstrated before 2009, it is only from this date that rebaudioside A has been authorized in France as a dietary supplement, and since 2010 as a food additive notably in beverages.5 Its difficult integration into the European sweetener market is related to its high price, but mainly because of large food industrial groups refusing this new natural sweetener to replace artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. The Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola companies have each released sweeteners derived from Stevia6 – respectively Truvia and PureVia – while its natural form is still banned in the United States, allowing them to exploit this natural sweetener in an exclusive manner,7 (while patentability of a natural substance is not allowed by law). Moreover, even if its safety seems to be demonstrated now, it appears not to withstand temperatures exceeding 100°C, high temperatures leading to denature this molecule into new other molecules, and many countries are still reluctant to allow Stevia on the market.

Thus, even if one can argue that “natural” does not guarantee “healthy”, it is difficult to disentangle the various laws or scientific studies and interests on such profitable food additives – the sweetener market is estimated at $ 1.5 billion. The best choice to ensure good health while taking pleasure in eating seems thus to be full of moderation and suspicion. But man can be sure of one thing, is that food industrial groups will always keep health as a priority, especially when it concerns one of their wallets…


Agave tequilana by Juan Ignacio/Flickr. [cc]by-sa[/cc]

Stevia rebaudiana by lskrida/Flickr. [cc]by-nc[/cc]


1 : Tous dépendants au sucre ? La Recherche n°443 : 70-73. Juillet –Août 2010.

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Aurélien Azam

I am a student in my second year at the master’s degree institute in science and engineering AgroParisTech, I’m working nowadays in a project named ‘Initiation to the Research in Biology’, supervised by Dr Karine Alix, Lecturer at my school. This project consists in writing popular science articles about plants biology for AoB Blog.

Antoine Le Gal

I am currently a student at AgroParisTech, the French Graduate Institute in Science and Engineering, in the second year of the engineering course. I am currently carrying out an engineering project called Introduction to the biology research.

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