Saccharum not sweet enough so Steve to the rescue

Sugar from sugar cane (various species of Saccharum) gets a bad rap. We seem to be in continual search for an alternative: something that tastes sweet but has less calories, more vitamins and minerals, and doesn't kill you.

Of course there are already alternative sources of sugar such as sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) but like sugar cane it gives us primarily the sugar sucrose. I won't bore you with why people think sugar is bad for you but waistlines and teeth figure prominently on the web.

Fructose, from fruit (and other things like sugar cane and sugar beet....), is considered by some to be a better alternative. It's sweeter than sucrose so you can use less to get your sugar hit, it has a lower glycemic index (go look it up if your not into that kind of thing, and congratulate yourself as well!), and it's better for diabetics. I think people also like it because fruit carry with them other nice things the body needs.

Whether or not it's a good thing to eat lots of fruit, and therefore fructose, to satisfy your sugar cravings is open to debate. The two sides of the debate are presented nicely in Ockham's Razor, from Australia's ABC National Radio.

In the first instalment David Gillespie says all sugar (including fructose) is bad for you: 'every day that fructose remains a part of our diet, is a death sentence for thousands of Australians' and we should 'ban added fructose as a food'.

Chris Forbes-Ewan disagrees. Fructose may stimulate appetite, meaning you are more likely to eat more and perhaps become obese. High intake of fructose may increase risk of some diseases such as gout, kidney stones and diabetes. However Forbes-Ewan reminds us of what Paracelsus first said in the 16th century 'there a not such things as poisons, only poisonous does'. Moderate intake is likely to be a good thing, he says.

In The Observer today Rebecca Smithers reported on two big food and drink companies rushing to get the latest sugar alternative onto the market. There have been plenty of what are called 'artificial' sweeteners (don't get me started on the arbitrary distinction between artificial and natural but what they mean is that the sugar is produced in a factory from chemicals not extracted directly from some living organism - at least I think that's what they might mean). Apparently more than a quarter of us Brits buy and use 'artificial' sweeteners.

According to Rebecca Smithers, saccharin and sucralose have a 'high chemical content' (again and interesting phrase given generally it would be a good thing to have lots of chemicals if they happened to be essential vitamins and minerals) and others, like aspartame have 'heath concerns'.

The most likely source of this new improved sugar is Stevia rebaudiana - a plant with a nice blokey genus name. Steve, as I like to call it, is a small shrub grown in South America and used locally for centuries, according to Smithers, to sweeten foods and drinks.

Steviol glycoside is extracted from Steve's leaves by soaking them in water and with a bit more purification becomes a 'calorie-free sweet taste'. Pay dirt! The big companies are excited - after all it's 'natural', has zero calories and 'looks and tastes good, with the crunch and crystal formation of sugar'.

Sound too good to be true (well if you like things 'natural' and having no calories)? The first products out in the US sweetened by Steve were apparently bitter in taste and, allegedly, sometimes causing diarrhoea, bloating, wind and constipation. A good night out really.

Image: 'Natural' sugar cane, growing inside one of the domes at the Eden Project in Cornwall.