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Stevia adds life to a soft drink.

By James Wall.

We all try to live life in a healthy manner, but I’m the first to admit partaking in the consumption of a few so called ‘treats’.

One of them is the very occasional small bottle of coke – only 330ml of it – only 8 and a half teaspoons of sugar !!! Ironically, I was proud that I always drank tea without any sugar but didn’t blink when having my 8 teaspoons in one serve of soft drink. Children don’t mind either when they can wangle one at the movies or drive through takeaways. No wonder its like they’re ‘sugar drunk’ once consumed.

I refuse to drink diet coke because it contains aspartame which you may remember was once slickly marketed as NutraSweet. Sweet it is, but nutritious it is not, being linked to headaches, digestive distress and mood changes in susceptible individuals. Besides, its got extra caffeine which being a diuretic will eventually leave you dehydrated, not refreshed.

The Coca-Cola company does cop a bit of flack for all the reasons above, but it must take some credit for its latest new product called Coke Life. This is because it contains a plant called stevia, a plant that nurseries have been selling for a long time. The Japanese have also been using this natural sweetener in their drinks for a long time. The leaves of this plant are naturally sweet – over 200 times sweeter than sugar. What’s really interesting, is that the stevia has little or no calories.

Stevia rebaudiana is native to South America, where people in Brazil and Paraguay have used it for 1500 years. Boy did we take a while to catch on. It is related to the sunflower and chrysanthemum, being part of the aster family. It is easy to grow, although you won’t get good germination rates from the seed, and you will need to protect the plants from the cold of winter.

Coke Life has 35% less sugar and when you’ve got as much sugar in you as regular coca-cola, then removing over a third of it is a big chunk. My 330 ml of coke life therefore has only about five and a half teaspoons of sugar. The most important question though, how did it taste? Pretty much like coke, with a slight astringent after-taste. A couple of bottle later and you wouldn’t remember the difference.

Chefs are also recommending the use of stevia in cooking and suggest it does have its own characteristic flavours which include liquorice, citrus, and that touch of astringency. It is a different beast to sugar and will not for example caramelise like sugar when it is heated. The most important thing is to know your conversion rate from sugar to stevia. Cooking with this plant means cooking with zero calories.

According to Coca-Cola, once stevia leaves reach their peak sweetness, they are harvested and dried. The dried stevia leaves are soaked in water to unlock the best-tasting, sweet substance found in the leaf. This extract is then filtered, purified, dried and crystallised. The finished ingredient is a sweetener that can be used in combination with sweeteners like sugar and fruit juice to deliver great-tasting reduced, low, and no kilojoule beverages.

Apparently sales of this new soft drink have been slow, but maybe this is because retailers are the ones not supporting it as none of them I have asked knew very much about it at all, let alone what stevia was. As we have known in the plants game for a while, it is the sugar plant. The one you can throw a  fresh leaf into a cup of tea tea sweeten it.

So next time you are thinking of ‘rewarding’ the kids with a sweet treat like a coke, why not make it a sweet one, but with 35% less sugar. Why not make it, a coke life.

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