In South America and Asia, people have been using the leaves of the stevia plant as a sweetener for centuries. In North America and Europe, it has only been popular for the past 15 to 20 years.
Stevia can be 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. It has been recognized as a natural substitute for white refined cane sugar, as well as the other artificial sweeteners. It is derived from a small leafy plant that grows best in warmer climates. Backyard gardens can grow stevia purchased from a local garden shop in a sunny spot this summer.
Originally used by South American tribes for centuries, it has been used to sweeten both teas and medicines. Because of its extraordinary sweetness, it is also used in a variety of other prepared foods, especially baked goods. The leaves of Stevia have been recognized as a multi-purposeful herb in both Brazil and Paraguay where it is considered a “sweet treat.”
Chewing on a leaf may leave a slightly bitter aftertaste, at the same time, satisfy a serious sweet tooth. Dried leaves can be added to coffee grounds or loose tea leaves for a new taste of sweetness with morning caffeine.
Fifty years ago, the artificial sweeteners cyclamate and aspartame (blue packet) were introduced. Twenty years earlier, saccharin (pink packet) was developed when sugar was rationed during WWII. A strong bitter aftertaste drove scientist to continue research until the perfect sugar substitute was found.
Sucralose (yellow packet) was added to the list of artificial sweeteners because of the problems with those earlier products. All of the colorful packets have been identified to have their downside health risks, in addition to not tasting good.
Beverage companies depend upon artificial sweeteners to sell noncalorie soda pop. They have been busy formulating processes for extracting the sweetest ingredients from the stevia plant. They proudly market their beverages as sweetened with a natural sweetener. Unfortunately, the processes that they use cause it to be no longer considered “natural.”
All natural stevia, straight from the plant and unprocessed, has health benefits that can lower insulin needs, decrease blood pressure and cholesterol, and has even lowered breast cancer risk. Some people try to compare the taste with cane sugar. It is close but has an earthy aftertaste, which many people learn to like.
Natural stevia extract is often purchased in a liquid form. It is very expensive and only a small drop equals a teaspoon of cane sugar. Check the label for any added chemicals or additives. Truvia (green packet) is a processed artificial sweetener that contains only 5% stevia, and this form of stevia is so processed that it barely resembles the natural product. Beware of marketing schemes that rely on the health benefits of a product to sell the item without any of those health benefits available to the consumer.
If you have a choice between sugar or an artificial sweetener, even if it is the green packet, consider taking a smaller portion of sugar to desensitize your sweetness meter. Artificial sweeteners are not “bad” nor is sugar, the evil twin. The amount of either makes all the difference.
Bobbie Randall is a registered, licensed dietitian, certified diabetes educator in Wooster, Ohio. Contact her at [email protected]