Stevia: The sweet, non-caloric, carbohydrate-free herb you can use as a sweetener!

Looking for something that tastes sweet and contains no calories or carbohydrates? You can find it in stevia. Stevia is an extract of the South American shrub Stevia rebaudiana. Stevia contains molecular compounds that taste extremely sweet. In fact, it is estimated to be 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. In Japan, stevia is the number one alternative sweetener used in prepared foods such as gum, candy, soft drinks, baked goods, and low calorie foods. In this country it is approved for sale as a medicinal supplement. That is the reason you will find stevia in our Supplements and Personal Care Department rather than next to the sugar in the grocery aisle. Stevia is a member of the Aster family and the whole herb has been used for centuries by indigenous people in Latin American countries as a tonic for mental alertness, digestion, and sugar metabolism. The powder and clear extract may not have the same medicinal qualities as the whole herb, but they work better as a sweetener. As a non-caloric sweetener, tests show it does not promote the growth of bacteria in the mouth (which cause tooth decay) or the overgrowth of the yeast candida albicans in the colon (which causes yeast infection). Since it has virtually no carbohydrate content, stevia does not adversely affect blood sugar levels.

Stevia has a “nectar-like” flavor, so it is not an exact substitution for sugar. The flavor is compatible with everything from a hot cup of herb tea to dairy products like yogurt to baked goods. Sprinkle it over your oatmeal and add some raisins and chopped nuts. You can make delicious banana bread, apple bran muffins, peanut butter cookies, etc. About 1/4 to 1/3 teaspoon of the stevia powder has the sweetening capacity of an entire cup of sugar, so be careful! If you add too much it will give off a strong licorice-like aftertaste. When you first try it, add a tiny amount to a cup of herb tea or plain yogurt. Add more, a few grains at a time, until you reach the desired level of sweetness. If you find that the flavor of stevia alone does not appeal to you, you can still cut calories and carbohydrates by combining it with small amounts of maple syrup or honey, as its flavor will take second place when paired with other sweeteners. In a recipe, use less stevia and add only 1-2 tablespoons of maple syrup, honey, or dried fruit.

In the Cambridge store, look for Sweet leaf, Stevia Plus FOS or Stevia Supreme, Organic Stevia, for stevia powder in packets, and Nu Naturals for a clear liquid form of the herb. In the JP store, look for Wisdom of the Ancients, Stevia in both powder and liquid forms, as well as Sweet leaf, Stevia Plus FOS powder in packets. In the bulk herb section you can find stevia as a dried herb. Make a tea from it and use the teas as a liquid sweetener. We also carry a number of cookbooks which we recommend if you are going to try baking with stevia. A selection of these are: Baking with Stevia, Recipes for the Sweet Leaf by Rita De Puydt, Sugar-Free Cooking with Stevia by James and Tanya Kirkland, and The Stevia Cookbook by Ray Sahelain and Donna Gates, among others. Stevia is a wonderful alternative for those who want or need to cut down on sweeteners, calories, and/or carbohydrates. It may take a little practice, but it’s worth the effort. Enjoy!

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