Stevia and the Quest for a Sugar-Free Life

>> Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Stevia rebaudiana flowersImage via WikipediaA friend of mine asked me about sugars yesterday and I tried to explain my favorite replacement, stevia. This is essentially my email rewritten for the general public, and it's a quick-rundown for anyone unfamiliar with it, or perhaps a review for those who are. It’s worth reviewing the Wikipedia entry about it so that you know its history, but basically it’s unknown - or at least less widely known -  today because large sugar interests managed to get it labeled by the FDA as a dietary supplement. This essentially meant that you could eat it, and it could be sold in stores without health claims but companies couldn't use it as an ingredient for their products. Now, when people are finally starting to learn about the ways they’ve been deceived (and since the major manufacturers have come up with their own branded versions of stevia) the FDA has conveniently changed their mind about it. At least, they're not saying a distinct "yea" or "nay" about it.

Incidentally this new position of the FDA is now good enough for companies like Coca-Cola to produce their own, protected versions of stevia. Those who are in-the-know (and I would love to be able to include myself in that group) recommend avoiding these brands such as Truvia or Purevia due to their extra processing. Don't fall for the pretty packaging!

Anyway, stevia: it’s an herb. You can grow it right in a planter in your house if you’d like; we do (although we don’t necessarily use the plant we’re growing for sweetening; without some processing stevia really has a strong aftertaste). For most applications today, the leaves are dried, ground up, and processed. They’re also often added to other things to make handling and cooking with it a bit easier. Trader Joes, for example, sells a mix of stevia and lactose which has a 1/3 ratio to regular sugar and is pretty convenient.  We do use this in our house, even though we realize it should still be considered a processed ingredient. The other way we use it is in liquid extract form. We’ve tried – and love – two brands; SweetLeaf and NOW. I prefer the SweetLeaf brand, but NOW creates a French Vanilla flavor that is truly awesome. The downside of the NOW brand is that it has more and unnecessary ingredients such as vegetable glycerin. Regardless of brand, in liquid form, I’ve determined that 4 drops has the equivalent sweetness of a level teaspoon of sugar and 5 drops is a heaping teaspoon.

By itself stevia has no calories, but depending on the form you use it takes some getting used to. Baking with it can prove difficult as often recipes require the actual mass of sugar to make up for body of the baked good. There is an aftertaste that you notice the same way you notice the aftertaste of a diet soda – but you can get used to it pretty easily. 

Overall when I’m baking I almost always replace the sugar with stevia. Sometimes, however, I’ll use honey or maple syrup – but those are of course still true sugars. Getting to the point of using no sugar is a difficult one, to be sure; we aren't there yet in our house as we're still keeping some around for making kombucha and the occasional indulgent dessert. But with stevia you can make great strides toward that goal without giving up too many sweets. Just don't forget that eating less sweets to begin with should remain your primary goal.

As a final note, definitely click through to the Huffington Post article below in the Zemanta links.

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Localnourishment,  September 23, 2010 at 10:20 AM  

I went through a stage of using mostly stevia for sweetening. I started (before I knew the extreme processing methods) with the white powder, then moved down the food chain to liquid. I now only use the whole leaf from a plant I grow, and then very rarely. We have one dessert a week which we sweeten with honey or real grade B maple syrup. We've (for the most part) broken our sugar addiction that required us to eat sweetened foods. Once we did that, it was amazing how sweet food is on its own.

But you are so right, there are brands of liquid and powdered stevia that are very processed with health-robbing ingredients like glycerine and maltodextrin.

Psychic Lunch,  September 28, 2010 at 9:37 PM  

It's interesting how transitions are usually a gradual process! While we still have the white powdered stevia, we haven't bought any for a long time and are able to make things without it for the most part.  I guess that's next on our list to eliminate!

Thanks for your comment, LN! Every time I see things like that, it makes me stronger :)

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Psychic Lunch was founded in 2009 by a nerd and father who wants people to be healthy. The information on this site is researched, but should be considered opinion; that is, you should always do your own research and come to your own conclusions about what is and what is not healthy. Products endorsed on this site are actually believed in and used by the author.


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