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Switching to Stevia: what the people think

Stevia rebaudiana bertoni powder

In the blog we tend to prioritise Australian research into weight loss and obesity, although many interesting studies on the topic are published around the world. One example is a recent study published in the Journal of Food Products Marketing based on a detailed survey of Malaysians to understand their interest in Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni) as an alternative to sugar.

Stevia is a sweet-tasting herb originating in Paraguay – and is often described as being 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia contains negligible calories, and is a source of carbohydrate, fibre, folic acid, and vitamin C. The plant is considered to have antioxidant, antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

Since 2003, Malaysian sugarcane production has decreased, causing the country to import sugar from countries such as Brazil and India. Then, in response to international price fluctuations, the Malaysian government commenced subsidising sugar. This stabilisation of the price enabled the cost-conscious population to continue consuming sugar at a rate of around 26 teaspoons per day. When contrasted with World Health Organisation recommendations on sugar consumption (no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day for women, and nine teaspoons for men), it seems clear that at a whole-of-population level, some kind of reduction of sugar intake is needed.

This survey of 900 consumers sought to test three hypotheses: that awareness of Stevia-based products, willingness to change to Stevia-based products, and willingness to pay for Stevia-based products were all linked to sociodemographic characteristics.

Survey results indicated that respondents were aware of products containing high amounts of sugar, and also linked the consumption of large quantities of sugar, or sugar-containing foods with chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and renal failure. Similarly, the survey established that participants were aware of sugar alternatives such as honey, brown sugar, and Stevia –however only 40% of respondents had ever consumed an alternative sweetener.
Awareness, willingness to use and pay for Stevia.

Analysis of the results found a link between people with higher levels of education and awareness of Stevia-based products. This reinforces the findings from previous research linking high levels of education with awareness of functional foods. However it should be noted that no other demographic features – such as marital status, gender, age or income – affected awareness of Stevia-based products.

It was also found that:
• People who were of single marital status or with a higher levels of education were also more likely to be willing to change to Stevia-based products;
• People with higher levels of education or with higher income levels were more willing to pay for Stevia-based products; and
• 80% of respondents were not willing to pay the current market price for Stevia products, finding it six times more expensive than the maximum they were willing to pay.

While this research was conducted in a specific international market, it appears that consumers have an appetite for replacing sugar-based products with non-sugar sweeteners such as Stevia. Overall, the attitude towards Stevia-based products is positive, and the potential dietary improvements of using this sweet leaf may be one more step towards the reduction of obesity and chronic disease in many global communities.

Kamarulzaman, N. H., Jamal, K., Vijayan, G., & Ab. Jalil, S. M. (2014). Will Consumers Purchase Stevia as a Sugar Substitute?: An Exploratory Study on Consumer Acceptance. Journal of Food Products Marketing, 20(sup1), 122–139.

Do you encourage your clients to replace sugar with other sweeteners? What do you suggest, and how successful are they in making the change?

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