When Ricki and I discussed which ingredient to use for the SOS Kitchen Challenge this month - the month of Valentine's Day - we both agreed that we needed something that could help showcase desserts. After all, we wanted our ingredient to be suitable as we whip up healthy sweets for our sweethearts (which includes anyone you care about - even yourself!).
Whether you follow a Lyme-specific diet like me, the ACD like Ricki, or just want to reduce the amount of white sugar in your life, this month's key ingredient is a fabulous natural sweetener and a healthy alternative to sugar. That's right - this month's SOS ingredient is none other than both Ricki's and my favorite sweetener:
Stevia, an herbal sweetener dervied from the stevia rebaudiana plant (native to Paraguay) has become massively popular in the US over the past couple of years; it’s been available in Canada since 1987. (In Japan, it’s been a staple since 1971, and remains the most popular sweetener in the country–more popular than white sugar).
Just about a year ago, Ricki devoted an entire post to this herbal sweetener. For those of you who are new to it, here’s a recap and some updated information.
Our favorite shrub with the sweet edible leaves, stevia, was given US designation as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in 2008. That’s why you’ve likely seen more and more foods recently that contain stevia, either in its pure form or a combination with fillers like cellulose or maltodextrin. In Canada, stevia is still considered an herbal supplement, so while you can buy it in its pure form, you won’t find Canadian soft drinks, puddings, or diet foods sweetened with stevia.
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.
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.
Types of Stevia and How to Use It
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 both Ricki and 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.
I tried my hand at growing my own stevia herb last year in my garden, which was a lot of fun. I ended up with a lot of stevia leaves, which I added to the tea pot with fresh lemon balm, peppermint, and lemon verbena for a lovely, sweet, digestive system-friendly tea. I also dried some of the leaves and made my own natural stevia powder. That stuff is intense.
If you’d like to try stevia for this challenge, 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 try any one of the following types of recipe:
- 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.)
If you type “stevia” into the search box at the right of this page, you’ll find a plethora of recipe ideas you can try. Remember, your entry to the SOS Challenge doesn’t have to be an original recipe–so feel free to use one of Ricki's or mine if you’re new to stevia!
AND PLEASE NOTE: For this month’s Challenge, you can combine stevia with other natural sweeteners (maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar, etc.) for your recipe(s). There is no need to create a recipe that uses stevia-only! That will also make a transition to cooking with stevia a little smoother for many of you.
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.
[Some of the many products offered by NuNaturals]
And Now. . . Some Stevia for Four of You!
This month, the amazing folks at NuNaturals (often described as the only “non-bitter” stevia extract) have offered a fabulous giveaway prize for our SOS Kitchen Challenge! By submitting a recipe to this month’s Challenge, you enter to win one of four prizes. (For full Challenge guidelines, please see this post). And remember, it’s perfectly fine to combine the stevia with other natural sweeteners in the recipe–no need to use stevia all on its own!
I just recently had the opportunity to try NuNaturals products, and their stevia has risen to the top of my "favorite stevia brands" list. The flavor is great.
Each prize contains:
- a box of 50 packets of NuNaturals stevia powder
- a 2-ounce bottle of NuNaturals Vanilla flavored stevia liquid
At the end of the month, Ricki and I will choose the four winners at random and ask that you send us your full names and shipping addresses–so be sure to come back here and check if you won at the beginning of next month!
We’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm and incredible creativity you’ve all shown over the past Challenges. So put those (sugar-free) thinking caps on, and start cooking with stevia this month! We can’t wait to see what sweet things you develop for our February Challenge!