The Wonders of Stevia

Did you know that most women report gaining an average of 3-5 pounds between Halloween and New Years Day each year? This, of course, is due in large part to the incredible amount of sweets and treats that make up the holiday traditions we all cherish. But did you know that there is a natural alternative to sugar? An alternative that is easily accessible and can grow in a pot on your windowsill? An all-natural alternative that is safe for diabetics (it will not affect glucose levels) and will not produce the other troublesome effects that sugar can have on your body? The sugar alternative I am referring to the herb stevia rebaudiana. (I have discussed stevia’s wonders on this blog before but decided there is no better time to explore this topic than the beginning of the holiday season : )
Stevia Rebaudiana has been used for centuries by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay, both nutritionally and medicinally. It first came to the attention of the rest of the world when the South American naturalist Bertoni published a report about it in the 1800’s. After his report, the herb became widely used by herbalists in Paraguay. During WW II, sugar shortages prompted England to begin investigating stevia as a sweetener. In the United States, the FDA has currently approved stevia as a dietary supplement but has yet to endorse the herb’s sweetness properties. Nevertheless, stevia is available for purchasing at the local grocery store and is easily grown by the home gardener.
To understand the importance of pursuing this (or any other) sugar alternative, it is necessary to first understand about the many potential dangers of sugar. I was recently asked by a customer at my herb shop, ‘Why bother with changing to stevia?’ as cooking with it is different from cooking with sugar. The answer is complicated. But generally, foods like refined sugar enter the blood stream quickly, leading to rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels. These foods have little or no nutritional value but usually have a lot of ’empty’ calories. Recently, there have also been studies conducted that indicate consumption of refined sugar frequently leads to an intense craving for more. The more sugar you consume the more you crave. (Think about the last time you had a craving for a cookie. Did you eat just one? Or did you nearly consume the whole package?) Refined sugar also encourages rotten teeth, unlike stevia. In fact, a study at Purdue University showed that stevia inhibits bacteria that cause cavities.
Artificial sweeteners are often used as an alternative to sugar. But the safety of many of them is questionable. Did you know that Aspartame has been a major cause of health-related complaints to the FDA? It seems like many of the popular brands of sweetener are eventually removed from the shelves by the FDA due to health concerns. I, personally, have experienced the increase in blood pressure as a result of using a generic form of Sweet-n-Low. After discontinuing use of this product, my blood pressure returned to normal. Prolonged use of some artificial sweeteners can also increase anxiety symptoms in some people. I guess one must question whether or not consuming artificial sweeteners is worth the risk. Especially when there is a natural alternative available that has proven itself for decades.
Stevia Rebaudiana can be added to recipes as a green leaf, whole or ground up in a spice grinder. The green leaves can also be used to create a water extract or tea bag that can easily be utilized to sweeten your favorite recipes that do not lend well to having the leaves in them. Stevia extract powder and alcohol, glycerine or water-based extracts are also available commercially. The white extract powder is very potent (200-300 times sweeter than sugar) and this potency varies from company to company. Like other herbs, the potency is also affected by the plant’s growing environment as well as harvesting conditions. As a result, recipes must be adjusted for each brand’s variance in sweetness. Stevia cookbooks frequently contain a chart that directs the home cook with the adjustment amounts for different brand names and different stevia forms. (If you are interested in one of these charts, leave a reply below. I would be happy to e-mail you a copy of the ones I have.)
Stevia Rebaudiana is available from many on-line and select local resources. The plants and seeds are also available in the Spring from many nation-wide home supply stores and (The Simple Heart of Life herb shop in central Illinois) so you can grow your own supply. Leave a reply below if you would like more information.
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Double Chocolate Truffles ( courtesy of Sensational Stevia Desserts, by Lisa Jobs)
*1 Tbl. lowfat milk  *1 tsp. stevia extract (powder)  *1/2 tsp. vanilla *4 Tbl. cocoa powder
*1 (8 oz) pkg Neufchatel cream cheese, softened   *6 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped fine
*1/4 tsp. stevia extract (powder)   *cocoa powder, coconut or chopped nuts for coating
Stir milk and 1 tsp. stevia in a small bowl until stevia dissolves; set aside. Mix cream cheese with electric mixer. Add stevia/milk mixture to cream cheese and mix again. Sift cocoa powder and add to cream cheese mixture. Mix for about 5 minutes, scraping sides of bowl periodically for thorough mixing. Divide truffle mixture into 2 small bowls and place in freezer for at least 30 minutes to solidify cheese.
Take out first bowl from freezer and form mixture into 1 inch balls using your fingers. Lightly coat balls with a dusting of cocoa powder. Place on cookie sheet lined with waxed paper. Remove second bowl from freezer and repeat process. Once all the mixture is formed into balls, freeze for at least 15 minutes so that truffles become more solid. Take out half of the truffles from freezer. Defrost at room temperature for 1-2 minutes only.
While truffles defrost, melt chocolate using a double boiler. Add 1/4 tsp. stevia and mix thoroughly. Partially fill an ice cream scoop with the melted chocolate. Keep scoop in left hand above boiler and drop a truffle in the chocolate with right hand. Gently roll truffle in scoop. When covered with a thin layer of chocolate, place truffle on spoon or fork and place against edge of scoop to remove excess. Place on wax paper-lined cookie sheet or immediately dip in cocoa powder, coconut or chopped nuts. Repeat the process with the other half of the truffles in the freezer. Refrigerate until ready to serve or freeze up to one month in a plastic container. Before serving, simple defrost at room temperature for about 5-10 minutes. Wonderful!
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Lemon Chiffon Topping (courtesy of Growing and Using Stevia by Jeffrey Goettemoeller & Karen Lucke)
*2/3 c. water   *1 tsp. unflavored gelatin   *1/2 c. nonfat dry milk   *1 tsp. lemon extract
*1 tsp. green stevia powder   *dash salt   *4 Tbl. vegetable oil
Pour water into a small, deep, stainless steel bowl. Shake gelatin on top and set aside to soften 5 minutes. Dissolve over low heat, stirring as needed. Remove from heat and stir in dry milk, vanilla and extracts, stevia, and salt. Chill until partially set. Beat for 4 minutes. Gradually beat in oil. Topping will be very light. Refrigerate. Stores well. Great topping for cakes, pies, etc.
Variation: For Vanilla Chiffon topping, omit lemon extract and increase vanilla extract to 1 1/4 tsp.
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Sweet Stevia Tea (The Simple Heart of Life)
*1 c. water   *1 tsp. dried stevia leaves, slightly crushed (few leaves)   *1 tea bag of choice
Place the water in a microwave-safe cup and place in microwave. Heat to boiling (high approx. 1 1/2 minutes). Add stevia leaves and tea bag to another cup and pour water over. Allow to steep for 5-10 minutes. Strain leaves, remove tea bag and serve.
I have been enjoying and using stevia for over 15 years. In my opinion, it truly is one of life’s simple pleasures!

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