Stevia is, as far as I can tell, the best no-cal sugar substitute. It's organic (just a crushed up leaf, actually!), it's cheap because it's almost 300x sweeter than sugar and easier to manufacture, and the current science suggests stevia is actively good for you. Here's a list of therapeutic effects attributable to stevia leaf extract according to Pharmacology & Therapeutics (world's sexiest peer-reviewed journal for three straight publication cycles running!): "Stevioside is anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immunomodulatory." Fun!
So why aren't we naming our collective firstborns Stevia and putting it in all the things? Well, people outside the US already are—and have been for literally thousands of years in much of South America. In fact, stevia is the traditional way to sweeten yerba mate. And our friends across the isthmus of Panama aren't the only ones having a non-nutritive sweetener party we thus far have not been invited to attend. In Japan, stevia's been the most popular fake sugar since the 1970s.
The US is behind the curve because years ago our FDA actually banned stevia. A few early rodent studies suggested massive doses might have mutagenic (aka mutation-causing, like the X-Men!) effects, and the government—the same government, btw, that let Four Loko become available at every Walgreens—got protective. Later studies debunked the idea that stevia caused mutations, and a World Health Organization committee even concluded definitively that stevia wasn't genotoxic, but the damage was done.
Which is too bad, because I adore stevia. I carry a little dropper bottle of extract around with me (the USDA-certified organic vanilla flavored tincture from Whole Foods makes everything taste like sweet, sweet ice cream and has a ton of antioxidants—similar here), and I get really excited when I see it in a little packet stuffed next to the Splenda and Sweet'N Low at a restaurant.
Also, Americans are consuming plenty of stevia at this point whether they realize it or not. A few years back the FDA approved Truvia, a highly processed version of stevia, and since then both Coke and Pepsi have begun adding it into their formulations to cut sugar calories without adding aspartame (aka Equal) to any more of their products. In some places, it's been added to Sprite already, and in the US, Truvia's now in Vitamin Water, which has to mean it's 50 Cent-approved. He has 21 Questions, but none of them are about the safety and reliability of stevia!
The only downside of Truvia is that it's so distilled that it's not even really considered stevia anymore. Instead, the active ingredient is one of stevia's glycosides, Reb A, which may not have all the health benefits you'd get from leaf powder or the pure, boiled down extract. In other words: it's not bad for you, but it might not do anything useful, either.
I know many people are against using fake sweeteners in general—fair enough; I respect your choices! But for the rest of us, I'd say that pure stevia powder or extract is a great, sustainable option that might actually help prevent insulin resistance and a host of other glucose-related problems. Plus, you know, it's delicious.
This article completely glossed over a lot of important points about stevia, and sweeteners in general, to avoid being a majillion words long and boring you all to death, but I've done a lot of research on the subject and have a ton of study links/would love to talk about it below with anyone who's interested.
Staz Lindes photographed by Thomaas for Mist Magazine.