We North Americans sure do love our sweets, don’t we? The growing number of sweeteners on store shelves these days surely reflects that preference. But we all know that sugar (refined or otherwise) is bad for us. So what’s a sweets-loving, health-conscious, Diabetes-averse gal to do? Go for stevia, an all-natural sweetener that’s quickly gaining a huge following, that’s what!
What is Stevia?
Stevia is an all-natural sweetener derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, also known as sweetleaf, native to South America. The green leaves are naturally sweet; on their own, about 50 times sweeter than sugar. When the individual compounds stevioside or rebaudioside are extracted from the plant, on their own they are about 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Most stevia you buy at the store is either a suspension (in liquid) or a powder (which usually contains some kind of filler, such as cellulose, added for bulk). Stevia offers 0 calories and does not raise blood sugar levels (that is, it’s “0” on the Glycemic Index). Most stevia you buy is, therefore, considered safe for diabetics as well.
How Do You Use Stevia?
Because stevia is so much sweeter than sugar, a little goes a long way. You can actually use the fresh leaves on their own, steeped in boiling water, as a kind of “tea.” More often, liquid or powdered stevia that you purchase is measured in drops or 1/32s of a teaspoon. About five drops is equivalent in sweetness to one teaspoon of sugar.
A great way to introduce stevia to your foods is to use it where you’d normally require only a little sweetness—drinks, or otherwise savory dishes.
- It’s great in any beverage: smoothies, coffee or tea, lemonade, or even salad dressings.
- Add a little stevia to sweeten creamy foods, such as puddings, oatmeal, whipped toppings, ice creams, or candy.
- You can use stevia in baked goods, but it’s a bit more challenging here because of differences in volume (a cup of sugar is likely replaced by a mere teaspoon or so of stevia). However, a few recipes out there do venture into baking with this sweetener.
Are There Any Drawbacks?
- Keep in mind that not all sweeteners are created equal; be sure to seek out products made of 100% pure stevia. Processed or blended stevia-based products, such as Truvia or Purevia, are either extracts of Rebaudioside-A only (ie, only part of the whole leaf), or contain fillers or other chemicals and may not be 100% stevia. Whole, 100% stevia is available only as a dietary supplement in the US and Canada.
- Some people report an unpleasant, licorice-like or bitter aftertaste when using pure stevia. However, I’ve found that in the case of stevia, “less is more.” In other words, a slightly less-sweet result actually works better. Or, use part stevia and part of another natural sweetener—you’ll still cut down on calories, but not on taste. Two stevia brands for which most people do not notice an aftertaste are NuNaturals and NOW.
- After some initial reports about health hazards associated with stevia (which is why it took so long to receive approval in the US), further study has never reproduced any negative results, in any test. In fact, stevia is the most-used sweetener in Japan, where it has been available for over 40 years.
Want to Give Stevia a Try?
Here are some recipes using stevia to get you started: