Stevia provides a natural sweeteness with zero calories and without raising blood sugar levels (it scores “0″ on the Glycemic Index). When the stevia leaves are dried, the compounds stevioside and rebaudioside are extracted to give stevia its sweetness (about 250-300 times sweeter than sugar). These resulting compounds can be dried into powder or used in liquid form; either way, they are usually augmented with fillers, since the pure extract is so sweet the amounts used would be infinitesmal. You can also consume the fresh leaves, which are about 30-45 times sweeter than sugar.
Types of Stevia available and how to use them
Stevia is available in many forms, including pure liquid, pure powder and both with added ingredients (usually fillers to render it easier to measure, since pure stevia is so sweet that the amounts needed are sometimes too small to portion accurately). I prefer liquid stevia as the dropper makes it easy to measure, but I use the powdered form as well. There are also one-for-one stevia-based sweeteners on the market that allow you to measure one cup of the mixture for one cup of sugar, but these always contain bulking agents. While they produce a good product, they may cause digestive distress for some people.
You’ll find pure stevia liquid in purified water, glycerin, or food grade alcohol. While the alcohol helps to preserve it longer, it’s not always suitable for those of us on the anti candida diet. The powder in its pure form is extremely potent, so it’s often mixed with fillers such as cellulose or maltodextrin. Again, if you’re sensitive to any of those ingredients, you’ll want to opt for pure stevia.
If you’d like to try stevia, keep in mind that the most difficult substitutions occur in baking, where both the wet and dry ratios of ingredients will be altered; it’s difficult to replace 1/2 cup of maple syrup with only 1/2 tsp of powder. If you’re just starting out, you might prefer to start using stevia in some of the following types of recipe to start getting comfortable with it:
- salad dressings
- puddings or custards
- smoothies or other beverages
- fruit-based desserts
- any other items that use very little sugar (pie crust, savory baking, pasta sauces, etc.)
When converting recipes to stevia instead of sugar, note that the weight of ingredients in your recipe will change. For example, if your recipe called for 2 cups of sugar and you replace the sugar with 2 tsp of stevia liquid, your recipe will be lacking a significant volume of ingredients. This can effect the balance of the overall proportion of the recipe. Sometimes I make up for the lack of sugar with a small amount of arrowroot starch, depending on the recipe - it doesn't replace it perfectly, but adds a slight amount volume that seems to help achieve some of the proper balance.
- Different brands of stevia blends (ones that include inulin or other sweeteners like xylitol) may have different conversion rates, so see manufacturer's suggestions for conversions.
- Ground whole leaf stevia has a grassy, "green" flavor which doesn't disappear as easily in baked goods.
- Always add less stevia and add more gradually, tasting as you go - too much stevia has an overpowering, bitter, "soapy" flavor.
- try different brands and different forms (powder, liquid, etc) and see which is your favorite.
- Sweetleaf: This company makes a wide range of stevia powders and liquids. Their powder is good, but tastes bitter very quickly. I prefer their plain and flavored liquids, which are delicious and have a good clean flavor. The SteviaPlus powder (a blend of stevia and inulin) are good as well.
- NuNaturals: My favorite brand of stevia. The taste is not bitter at all, and both the liquid and powder are easy to use and excellent.
- NOW: This brand of powdered stevia extract is commonly available, affordable, and has an okay flavor - but I find it is very bitter if used in excess.
Health benefits of Stevia
Several studies have shown that stevia in its pure form (not processed products like Truvia or PureVia) may confer many types of health benefits. It’s been shown to be safe without containing toxins or producing side effects in those who consume it. And because it’s zero calorie and doesn’t spike blood glucose, it’s a great sweetener for diabetics or others with blood sugar issues. Recent research suggests it may help to stabilize insulin levels as well, and some studies even suggest that it can regulate blood pressure. A Japanese study (where stevia is immensely popular) found that stevia can help to prevent plaque buildup on teeth. In addition, stevia (like all plants) contains antioxidants, known to help fight free radicals that can lead to chronic conditions and cancer.
What Does Stevia Taste Like?
According to Chet Day on his Health and Beyond website, stevia acquires its sweetness from ”its complex stevioside molecule that is composed of glucose, sophorose and steviol. A second compound called rebaudioside, which is present in Stevia, also contributes to Stevia’s sweetness.” I personally have never had any problems with the unique taste that stevia confers in foods, but I know that some people do consider that it has a slightly bitter aftertaste; some notice a very subtle licorice undertone. Apparently, the better the quality, the less likely you’ll notice any kind of bitterness.
In addition, since stevia is so much sweeter than sugar, it’s important to remember that a little goes a (really) long way. When first starting out with this natural sweetener, it’s better to err on the side of slightly less sweet than too sweet, to avoid this potential problem.
Conversion information sources:
- SweetLeaf: http://www.sweetleaf.com/sweetleaf-usage
- Stevia.net: http://www.stevia.net/conversion.html
Text adapted from Ricki Heller