STEVIA: Satisfying the Sweet Tooth
When I began to recognize the symptoms of Hypoglycemia or Low Blood Sugar experienced upon indulging my taste for sweets, I realized that conventional sweeteners were due to make an exit from my diet. Knowing I would find a great challenge in attempting this dietary change, I delved into a search for healthy alternatives and discovered a sweet surprise known as Stevia.
Also known as Sweetleaf, Honeyleaf, or by its botanical name, Stevia rebaudiana is a plant native to South America and is said to feature all of the sugar-free sweetness of aspartame or saccharin while being a completely natural product.
Drawing on my background in herbal medicine, I learned all I could about the health benefits of Stevia. I bought some dried, powdered leaves at the local co-op and began experimenting with them, seeking a replacement for the sugary baked goods of which I was feeling so deprived. I created a few palatable recipes, but found the Stevia green powder to have a gritty texture. Again I looked to my herbal medicine making experience and concocted a Stevia tincture, an extract in water and alcohol, which yielded finer results.
As I continued my experiments, I began introducing people to this Sweetleaf. Some were diabetics or hypoglycemics, some were just looking for alternatives to the ups and downs of sugar, all were thrilled to learn about Stevia. I’ve learned that there is a great need for the gift of healthful sweetness offered by this plant. Last year, I started Alternative Sweetener Co. and am producing Stevia extract which is available online and in some natural food stores. An important part of the company mission is education, spreading the word that there exists a healthy sweet alternative outside of the sugar and artificial sweetener industries.
Traditionally used by indigenous cultures in Paraguay and Brazil to sweeten teas, Stevia is now widely cultivated and used throughout the modern world as a calorie-free natural sweetener. Stevia, although tasting up to 15 times sweeter than white sugar by weight, contains no sugars and has no undesirable impacts on blood sugar levels or insulin metabolism, making it the ideal choice for diabetics and hypoglycemics. Beyond it’s sweetening capacities, it has also been used medicinally as a digestive aid, a skin remedy and wound healer, an antiseptic, and has been shown to diminish the bacteria which produce plaque and tooth decay. How many sweeteners can make that claim?
It is available in natural food stores and increasingly in grocery stores in a variety of formulations. Whole dried leaves, powdered leaf, a white powder refined from the plant, and liquid extracts prepared from any of the above are just some of the options. Many newer products combine the white powdered Stevia extract with fillers, fruit-derived quasi-sugars, or quasi-carbohydrates such as maltodextrin. As a proponent of whole foods, I prefer the “green” products as they’ve been spared the refining and decolorizing processes to which the white or clear products are subjected.
In the Kitchen
It is an ideal sweetener in coffee, teas, smoothies, and even in baked goods. These sometimes require recipe adjustments to compensate for the moistness and intense sweetness usually contributed by conventional sweeteners. Stevia’s sweetness is more subtle, manifesting as an aftertaste in some recipes. Whole Stevia leaves make a nice addition to loose tea blends while an extract can be conveniently added to coffee on the go or incorporated into a recipe. Most products on the market offer guidance in determining what quantity to use, as sweetness can vary significantly from one preparation to another. There are a number of well-written cookbooks offering guidance in learning to use this versatile alternative.