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Sweet dishes often round out celebration and holiday meals, making it difficult to avoid excess sugar during social occasions. However, in your own kitchen, you might consider trying an alternative sweetener, one that has remained part of the native Paraguayan diet for over 1,500 years. Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, otherwise known as stevia, was approved as a dietary supplement in the U.S. in 1994; since 2008, it has been approved as a food additive. You may have noticed it listed as a sweetener in beverages, or seen its table top form. Unlike conventional sweeteners, stevia has a glycemic index of zero and contains virtually no calories or carbohydrates, making it ideal for diabetics and anyone who wants to avoid excess sugar. In fact, numerous studies have found an association between a daily dose of whole leaf stevia or stevia extract and a reduction in high blood sugar.
So how best to take advantage of this sweet herb in the kitchen?
Know what to look for
- Manufacturers whose brand of stevia has attained GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from the FDA may sell it as a food additive and market it as a table-top sweetener, for use in foods and beverages. Other brands of stevia may only be marketed as dietary supplements.
- To make stevia available as a food and recipe sweetener, manufacturers extract its glycosides (responsible for its sweetness) and separate them from its other compounds. Because these glycosides can be approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar, they must be blended with some kind of carrier in order to produce a sweetener that can be sprinkled onto foods or into beverages. Different manufacturers may use different carriers, and not all are equally desirable. For instance, because some manufacturing and processing methods result in a stevia extract with a bitter taste, another type of sweetener may be used as the carrier in order to mask the bitterness. Make sure to read the product label! A preferable carrier is a natural, vegetable-based, soluble fiber, such as inulin, which works very well with an extraction process that doesn’t result in a bitter taste.
- Given the variety of processing methods, one brand of table-top stevia may differ from another in the intensity of its sweetness and in its overall flavor. So, in addition to reading the labels, perhaps try a number of brands until you find one that best suits your taste.
- Manufacturers produce stevia in powdered form as well as in a liquid extract. Remember, as a liquid, in its pure extract form, stevia is about 300 times sweeter than conventional white sugar. Some brands of stevia are so sweet that a toothpick dipped in the extract will be enough to sweeten your (organic) cup of coffee. However, more stevia may need to be used when sweetening beverages with the powdered form of this herb. You may wish to consider both forms of stevia when shopping, depending on your intended use for the product.
Cooking and baking with stevia
- Stevia in its pure extract form and as a food and beverage sweetener can be used in both cooking and baking. However, because a little bit of stevia adds so much sweetness, you’ll need to find a bulking ingredient to compensate for the loss of volume that sugar would normally contribute to a recipe. Yogurt and applesauce are good bulking foods.
- Stevia is stable in both very hot and freezing temperatures, but it will not caramelize or brown.
- Dried stevia leaves can add sweetness and zest to a variety of dishes. Try crumbling or sprinkling them on foods as you would any spice or seasoning.
- Try adding ground leaves to salads, soups, sauces, stews, beans, applesauce, hot cereals, and baked or mashed potatoes.
Experiment with this unique herb. Everyone’s taste buds are different, so adjust the quantities of stevia you use to suit your own preference. The right amount should provide a delightful sweetness.
For more information see “Stevia: Versatile Sweetener and Effective Medicinal” by James May in the Spring 2012 Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing. Become a member today to receive access to this journal and many more health and nutrition resources.