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Sweet Alternatives: Herbs Over Sugars

Try herbal sweeteners such as stevia and licorice for a natural, low- to no-calorie alternative to processed sugars.

| May/June 1997

  • A sprig of Paraguayan sweet herb (Stevia rebaudiana) and sugar lumps. Stevia is a noncaloric herbal sweetener that is available in many health-food stores.
  • Paraguayan sweet herb and multicolored sugar crystals.
  • Herbal sweeteners and how they compare with sucrose in intensity of sweetness and caloric value.

Some herbal alternatives to sugar and artificial ­sweeteners are well-known outside the United States, yet they aren’t readily available to Western consumers. Here is an update on what we know about the sweetening herbs and their status with the U.S. Food and Drug ­Administration. 

A sweet tooth is the downfall of many a waistline, yet the demand for sweetness in foods is so pervasive that commercial food products ranging from cereals to spaghetti sauces are laced with sugar in its various forms, including that from processed sugarcane, sorghum, corn syrup, sugar beets, and sugar maple. Such additives may make the food taste good, but they also contribute “empty” calories that can in time add up to unwanted pounds.

Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame offer calorie-free alternatives, but they have drawbacks. Saccharin has an aftertaste, and aspartame can’t be heated and has a short shelf life. In addition, saccharin has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, although that finding as well as the health risks associated with aspartame are being debated.

The sweet tooth isn’t a 1990s phenomenon. In earlier times, long before the advent of processed sugars and ­artificial sweeteners, people of many cultures satisfied their craving for sweets with fruits such as dates, figs, and grapes. Ancient civilizations also recognized the sweet properties of many herbs. Modern scientific technology has isolated more than seventy-five sweetening agents that come from plants. Today, a few of these herbal sweeteners are as ­common as sugar in non-Western countries such as Japan. They aren’t readily available to Western consumers, primarily ­because insufficient evidence has been gathered to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of their safety. However, the appearance of noncaloric natural sweeteners for the Western market is likely within the next few years.


Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a Eurasian perennial herb of the pea family (Leguminosae). Its roots, which are wrinkled and brown on the outside and yellow on the inside, contain glycyrrhizin, a compound that is 50 to 150 times as sweet as cane sugar.

The earliest written reference to using licorice is found in the Codex Hammurabi, a cuneiform manuscript from Bronze Age Mesopotamia written about 1750 b.c. Licorice was known as Scythian root to the Greek naturalist Theophrastus (circa 372– circa 287 b.c.), from the legend that Scythian warriors could go for twelve days without drink when supplied with licorice root and mare’s-milk cheese. If you have ever sucked the juice from a licorice root, you probably were impressed, as Theophrastus was, with its smooth, sweet taste.

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