All About Stevia
By Melissa Conroy
The next time you are at the grocery store, push your cart to the bakery section, load it with 30 5-pound bags of sugar, then take a good look. That is the amount of sugar the average American eats in a year. While much of that sugar intake comes in obvious forms like candy and baked goods, sugar is sneaked into quite a lot of foods you wouldn’t suspect such as ketchup, salad dressing and spaghetti sauce. What with rising rates of diabetes and obesity exploding around the 50 states, keeping your sugar consumption down is a great way to help reduce your chances of piling on extra pounds, avoiding diabetes and warding off other health problems.
Unfortunately, some of the sugar substitutes we have available are not safe or healthy alternatives to table sugar. Aspartame (what Nutra-Sweet is made of) has long been linked to a host of problems such as tumors and Alzheimer’s. Sucralose (sold as Splenda) is the result of regular table sugar being treated with chlorine, a substance that is best kept out of your body. Saccharine, sold under the brand name of Sweet’N Low, is known for having a bitter aftertaste and can trigger reactions in people who are allergic to sulfa drugs.
Enter stevia, a naturally-derived sweetener that was first discovered by the Guarani people of Paraguay centuries ago. Stevia is a genus of about 240 plants that are native to Mexico, Central and South Americas. The leaves of the plants are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar and various culture groups have been using the leaves to sweeten their drinks and food for centuries. In recent decades, Japan took an interest in stevia and began offering stevia extracts for commercial sale during the ‘70s. Stevia took longer to spread to the US, mostly due to resistance by the Federal Drug Administration, but in the last couple of years, the product has become widely available in grocery stores across the nation under such brand names as PureVia and TruVia.
Stevia is usually available in a powder or liquid form. The powder form generally comes in individual packets, each sachet equal to about two teaspoons of sugar. Stevia tastes sweet like sugar, but it has a faint licorice flavor that can intensify depending on how strong the derivative is you are trying. Unlike artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, stevia does not have a bitter, distinctly chemical taste or unpleasant aftertaste. It dissolves easily into liquid, and it complements the flavor of foods it is added to. Moreover, once you start using it, it becomes harder to distinguish the difference between table sugar and stevia.
Stevia is great in tea and coffee or sprinkled over fresh fruit, but you can also cook with it too. Unlike aspartame, which doesn’t work as a baking agent because it breaks down in heat, stevia is a good sugar substitute for baking and cooking. However, you need to do a little planning before you break out the baking pans because the sugar-to-stevia conversion requires some knowledge. Since stevia is much sweeter than regular sugar, you need to plan appropriately. The website www.stevia.com has a very helpful conversion chart for different stevia dosages such as powder packages, and the chart helps you decide how much stevia you need for your baked products. A little experimentation helps too, and it is generally better to use too little stevia than too much. Once you can deduce the best amount of stevia to use for your recipe, you can basically substitute it for sugar and continue baking as normal. However, do be aware that stevia doesn’t crystallize, so if you use it for candy or to make a caramelized topping for a pudding, your results will be less than ideal. But in most bakery recipes, you can easily swap sugar for stevia.
Even better, stevia can be a boon for diabetics and anyone else watching their sugar intake because since it is sweeter than sugar, a smaller amount is needed to satisfy sugar cravings. There is also some research that indicates stevia doesn’t affect blood sugar the way regular table sugar does; in fact, stevia may actually help regulate blood sugar levels. While this topic remains controversial, it is clear that a little bit of stevia is better and healthier than a lot of table sugar or a package of some chemically-derived artificial sweetener.
If you are searching for something sweet to put in your coffee or cookies that won’t give you a dose of chlorine or leave a funny taste in your mouth, stevia may be just the thing. Easy to use, tasty and naturally derived, stevia is the new sweetener that is actually quite old with a firmly rooted history. Try it today for a sweeter, less sugary life.