Stevia

Have you had your 50 heaping teaspoons of sugar today? The average American consumes between 150 and 200 pounds of refined sugar per year![1] In excess, refined sugar can be toxic – plain and simple. Artificial sweeteners are even more so. Our bodies were not designed to cope with the enormous quantities of sugar we routinely ingest. Our craving for sweets is not inherently bad, but what we choose to curb those cravings with can dramatically determine how we feel, both short and long term. Stevia, or more accurately stevia rebaudiana, is one excellent way to limit or altogether avoid refined sugar and its disastrous effects. Stevia, also called sweetleaf or honeyleaf, is a small shrub native to Paraguay and Brazil, and has been enjoyed for its sweetness and medicinal properties for centuries. Today, it is grown and used around the world. In fact, stevia accounts for nearly 40% of the sweetener market in Japan[2] and since the 1970s the Japanese have been using this herb as a food additive in beverages, chewing gum, and hundreds of food products.[3],[4] However, it is just recently that Americans have become aware of this valuable plant. Currently there are only a handful of highly refined stevia preparations that the FDA has approved as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food products, while other, less refined versions, are only approved for use as dietary supplements in the US. Nevertheless, it is available, and you can learn to incorporate it into your diet for fabulous health benefits.

Stevia’s Health Benefits

Besides replacing sugar and eliminating all the negative effects that go along with sugar consumption, some other health benefits this sweet herb provides include:

Dental Health

Research from Purdue University has demonstrated that stevia retards plaque accumulation on the teeth and suppresses bacterial growth that causes cavities.[8],[5] Unlike sugar, stevia may be good for your teeth!

Digestion

Stevia has been used in Brazil as an aid to digestive functioning.[6] This herb positively influences the health of the pancreas3, which is critical to healthy digestion.

Balance Blood Sugar

Reports suggest that stevia might help balance blood sugar levels and therefore potentially assist diabetes and hypoglycemia.[7] In fact, herbalists in Brazil have been recommending stevia to regulate blood sugar levels for at least forty years.[8]

Bear in mind, the best health benefits come from stevia as a whole herb. When the steviosides are extracted to create the white powder or clear liquid, the medicinal and nutritive properties are reduced.

Stevia’s Sweetness Potential

Various glycosides, particularly steviosides and rebaudiosides, give stevia its sweetness. The stevia herb in its natural form (the green plant in leaf or ground form or dark liquid extract) is approximately 10 to 30 times sweeter than common table sugar.[8] The refined stevioside forms (white power or clear liquid extract) can range anywhere from 100 to 300 times sweetener than table sugar.[8],[9] Best of all, this essentially calorie-free sweetener does not provoke an insulin reaction in the body and consequently has none of the adverse effects associated with sugar consumption.[8]

OK, but how does it taste?

Stevia has a sweet taste that is unique with a slight licorice-like aftertaste. The better quality products have less of an aftertaste. For some people the taste may require some “getting used to,” but most people enjoy its flavor from the start. The sweetness and taste of all forms of stevia can vary due to a variety of factors including where and how it was grown, processing methods, and if it is diluted or “blended” with maltodextrin or other fillers. “Stevia blends” are about four times sweeter than sugar and claims are made that these are easier to bake with. Read labels so you know what you are purchasing. For these reasons it is important to experiment with different brands and forms to find what suits you best.

As with all foods, the less refining a product goes through the more healthful it is; therefore, try to stick with the whole leaf products when possible. Furthermore, the white powder tends to exhibit a slight bitter aftertaste. Research is currently under development for improving the taste of refined stevia products. Use the stevioside products if you are bothered by the green color the whole herb conveys to foods or you prefer the taste.

Is it safe?

Extensive reviews of human and animal data indicate stevia to be safe.[10] In the many acute and long-term toxicity tests of stevia and its sweet glycosides, there have been no indications of any toxicity or harm caused by these substances.[8] A more powerful indication of stevia’s safety is that there have never been any reports of ill effects in over 1500 years of continuous use by the Paraguayans. Similarly, over 20 years of widespread use of stevioside as a sweetening agent in Japan has not produced a single report of side effects of any kind. Compare that record to aspartame, which is the number one source of consumer food complaints to the FDA.

Cooking with Stevia

This dietary supplement is heat stable and can be used for such things as tea, lemonade, smoothies, breakfast grains, and baked goods. Oftentimes the licorice aftertaste of the whole herb as well as the bitter aftertaste of the steviosides disappears when used in the proper amounts in cooking and baking. Bear in mind, although stevia can actually enhance flavors in some dishes, it may not work at all in others.

First introduce yourself to stevia by using it to replace sugar in tea or lemonade. Then try some cookie, waffle, or cereal recipes that are made to use stevia. There are a number of terrific cookbooks: for example, The Stevia Cookbook by Ray Sahelian, Stevia Naturally Sweet Recipes by Rita DePuydt and Stevia Sweet Recipes Sugar-Free Naturally by Jeffery Goettemoeller. Stevia can also be combined with other healthy sweeteners, such as rice syrup, barley malt, molasses, and raw honey, to reduce the amount of sweetener needed. When experimenting with your own recipes, you may need to add one or two tablespoons of extra liquid. You can also try applesauce, mashed yams, or nut butters to replace the bulk of regular sweeteners in recipes. (Conversion chart attached.)

Limitations of stevia

Because stevia contains no sugar, it cannot be used in yeast breads since the yeast needs sugar to be activated. Stevia will not caramelize and thus cannot be used for meringues. Additionally, baked foods containing stevia will not brown in the same manner as conventionally sweetened products; therefore, the easiest way to judge doneness is the “toothpick test” or by touch.

This exceptional dietary supplement can provide far-reaching health benefits by helping you reduce your sugar intake. Overall, to promote optimal health, focus your sweet inclinations on natural, more healthful sweeteners and incorporate stevia where you can.

Approximate Equivalents:

Granulated Sugar Whole Stevia leaf powder White Stevia Extract (powder)
1 tsp. 1/8 tsp. Dust on spoon
1 Tbs. 3/8 tsp. ½ pinch
¼ cup 1 ½ tsp. Pinch
½ cup 1 Tbs. 1/8 teaspoon
1 cup 2 Tbs. ¼  to ½ teaspoon

1 tsp stevia clear liquid = 1 cup sugar

1 Tbsp. whole leaf dark liquid concentrate = 1 cup sugar

2 tsp. Whole leaf dark liquid concentrate = 1 cup brown sugar

These are starting amounts; if you find you would like more sweetness, add more stevia. Too much stevia may taste bitter. Remember, several things impact the amount, such as the fact that the sweetness may vary from batch to batch, personal sweetness preference, and the food that it is used in (sour foods like cranberries or lemons often need more). Therefore, it is best to start with smaller quantities and add from there.


References

[1] Wright, Jonathan, Dr. Detect and prevent diabetes NOW. Nutrition and Healing. Vol 8, Issue 7, July 2001.

[2] Blumenthal M. FDA rejects AHPA stevia petition. Whole Foods Apr 1994:61–64.

[3] Gates, Donna. The Body Ecology Diet. B.E.D. Publications. Atlanta Georgia. 1996.

[4] Fujita, H. Edahiro, T. Safety and utilization of stevia sweetener. The Food Industry, 22(22), 1-8, 1979.

[5] Railey, Karen. Steiva-an alternative for sugar? Found at www.chetday.com/stevia.html on May 30, 2001.

[6] Elkins, Rita. Stevia: Nature’s Sweetener. Pleasant Grove UT: Woodland Publishing. 1997.

[7] Curi R, Alvarez M, Bazotte RB, et al. Effect of Stevia rebaudiana on glucose tolerance in normal adult humans. Braz J Med Biol Res 1986;19(6):771–74.

[8] Richard, David. Stevia Rebaudiana: Nature’s Sweet Secret. Vital Health Publishing. 1996.

[9] Healthnotes. Online, Inc. 1505 SE Gideon St., Suite 200, Portland, OR 97202, www.healthnotes.com. 1999. Author are Lininger, Skye, D.C., Wright, Jonathan, M.D., Austin, Steve, N.D., Brown, Donald, N.D. & Gaby, Alan, M.D. Steiva.

[10] Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 478–80.