When selecting ingredients for your holiday baking, this year, you had several hurdles. Cake, or cookies? Butter, or a vegan substitution? And of course, there’s the choice of sweetener, where you had to choose between Splenda, Sugar in the Raw, organic cane sugar, or now, the newest face in the baking aisle, stevia. We’ve come so far from known-carcinogen aspartame, so surely, one must be superior when it comes to health benefits and safety. But Splenda and stevia, which seem to be the most popular zero-calorie sugar-substitutes, are so similar, it’s hard to know which is the better pick.
It’s not hard to see why these two products are easily conflated, and why diet-conscious folks aren’t sure which calorie-free product is “better.” They seem, on the outset, to be fairly similar. Both Splenda, which was introduced in the United States in 1999, and stevia, which has had an on-again, off-again trade history with the US since the 1980s, are used and marketed as sugar substitutes, for baking, cooking, and the sweetening of drinks and desserts.
Despite being similar in texture and taste, Splenda is the brand name of a specific product. Stevia, however, which is refined and made available under brand names like Truvia, PureVia, and others, isn’t. This is where the two products truly diverge.
The biggest difference between Splenda and stevia–in all of its forms– is what they’re made of. Splenda is sucralose-based (it’s also got additives, like dexterin, which may not actually make it “zer0 calorie”), whereas stevia is derived from the leaves of an grown in South America. And while stevia’s “natural” roots are what may make many people turn to it as an “healthier” option, the fact is, it hasn’t actually been proven to be any better for you than Splenda.
Both Splenda and stevia are sweeter than sugar (Spenda is 300 times more sweet), so consumers are instructed to use less–though, in baking, plenty of people substitute them using a one-to-one ratio, which may be at the heart of health concerns regarding them. But what’s got people so worried?
The FDA has only just allowed stevia to be sold as a sweetener in the United States within the last 5 years, following a skirmish over whether or not it was a “food” or a “food additive.” Which is why some health advocates are still warning against regular use. Of course, it’s not as if stevia is brand-new; it’s been used for its powerful sweetening ability in South America and other nations for thousands of years.
Splenda, too, has some scientists concerned. Studies of sucralose ingestion in rats have shown potentially harmful effects, including carcinogenic behavior, and an increase in the risk of obesity. But other studies, conducted on actual humans, have failed to recreate such results. Without further studies, neither Splenda nor stevia can be called anything other than safe. But is one better?
Not really, according to most health professionals. There may be some benefits to each, but neither makes it stand out as a perfect solution. Because it’s plant-based, may actually add negligible amounts of vitamins to your baking and cooking, though it doesn’t seem to be a notable benefit. Splenda, incidentally, has begun adding vitamins to some of its products in an attempt to pull ahead of the pack, as well.
Despite differences in composition, Splenda and stevia remain fairly akin to one another. Neither is a perfect substitute for sugar, but then, sugar isn’t exactly a wonderproduct that you should be piling into your meals like there’s no tomorrow. Just like with real sugar, sweeteners are meant to be used in moderation. Use whichever one you prefer, but know that neither is a license for limitless desserts.
Images: Splenda, Truvia, and some artistic license by myself.