Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you’ve probably heard of stevia, the latest Wunderkind to grace the alternative sweetener stage.

Stevia, which is actually a genus of herbs in the sunflower family, is native to subtropical and tropical areas spanning from western North America (Arizona, New Mexico) to South America. With natural extracts of the plant up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, stevia has garnered much press coverage in recent years for its potential use as a natural (and zero-calorie!) sweetener for people on carbohydrate-controlled diets, particularly those with Diabetes.

Stevia’s availability as a sweetener varies from country to country. The herb has been widely utilized as a sweetener in Japan since the 1970’s, when conglomerate Morita Kagaku Kogyo Ltd. decided to cultivate the herb as an alternative to artificial sweeteners like saccharin (Sweet n’ Low) and cyclamate.

In the U.S., stevia cultivation and use is not as straightforward. Citing (poorly-constructed) animal studies that linked stevia and increased cancer risk, the FDA controversially labeled the herb an “unsafe food additive” and restricted its import beginning in 1991. Arizona congressman John Kyl was one of many to criticize the ruling, calling the ban against stevia “a restraint of trade to benefit the artificial sweetener industry.”

Nature’s “sweet herb” remained an herba non grata until 1994’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act pushed the FDA to revise its ruling and allow stevia to be approved as a dietary supplement. The FDA acquiesced, but maintained its position that stevia not be approved as a food additive.

Stevia remains banned in much of the E.U. (France and Belgium are exceptions), as well as Singapore and Hong Kong, given the unresolved question of whether its metabolism yields mutagenic compounds. Recent data compiled by the World Health Organization has suggested that such legislation may be obsolete, however.

Tug-of-war between the artificial sweetener industry and proponents of stevia aside, the U.S. market for the herb is as robust as ever. Coca-Cola rolled out Truvia in 2009, a commercial brand stevia sweetener that contains sugar alcohol erythritol and stevia extract Rebiana, and has since released stevia-sweetened beverages. PepsiCo has also followed suit with their PureVia sweetener.

On the personal scale, Grub first readers know that I have recently made it my mission to test various naturally- (as opposed to synthetically) derived sweeteners. I have two products to report on in this installment of Rate That Natural Sweetener– Erba Dolce stevia extract, and Navitas Naturals’ organic stevia powder.

I selected the Erba Dolce from my favorite store ever, a.k.a. Northampton’s Deals n’ Steals, because it was the cheapest stevia extract they had at the time. A white granulated powder, I loved the taste of “South America’s Premium Stevia” so much so that I recently helped myself to several teaspoons of the stuff (sans beverage, that is) during a particular bout of sugar craving. The Columbian-produced sweetener contains stevia extracts stevioside and rebaudoside A and maltodextrin, a common thickening agent.

Having burned through my Erba Dolce supply, the Stevia Gods (or Pa B., in this case) smiled upon me and kindly replaced my stevia stores in the form of an eight-ounce bag of organic green stevia powder.

I must have missed the “green” on the label, because I was somewhat shocked upon opening the goods to be staring into a bag of fine green powder. While I have tasted “fresh” stevia leaves (an uncle grows his own supply), my loving relationship with Erba Dolce’s white powder had left me unprepared for stevia in its unadulterated form.

Navitas’ green stevia is indeed sweet, but has a decidedly different taste from that of Erba Dolce. The powder has a slight leafy taste, but is not overwhelmingly vegetal. And, not being a concentrated extract, its sweetness is not as bold. Regardless, I have since sweetened coffee, hot cocoa and chai tea with the powder, and have not been dissapointed with the results.

When it is time to restock the stevia, however, I imagine that I will choose an extract like Erba Dolce’s. Erba simply tastes more like sugar, a taste I am apparently unwilling to give up on while in pursuit of that perfect natural sweetener.

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