Friday, July 20, 2007

STEVIA: This Paraguayan herb packs 20 times the sweetening power of sugar with no assimilation problems for diabetic

Mother Nature has given those of us with figures that go beyond "Victoria's Secret" a great gift-a natural sweetener with virtually no calories or aftertaste, that's economical to use. Stevia, also called the "sweet herb of Paraguay," is a perennial shrub of the aster family, with incredibly sweet, small leaves. The leaves when dried and ground fine can be used as a natural sugar substitute. A teaspoon of dried stevia leaves is sweeter than a cup of sugar-without the calories.

Stevia Origins

Stevia leaves contain a compound, stevioside, estimated to be 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar. It is stable in both hot and acidic conditions, which is perfect for use in cooking. South Americans have used this native sweetener in their traditional dish mate since the sixteenth century, and indigenous Paraguay indians have traditionally used the herb to sweeten bitter beverages and as an ingredient in medicinal herbal teas.

During World War II, when sugar was scarce and rationed, stevia was planted in England as a possible substitute. Attempts were made to introduce stevia to the U.S. as well, but tight war-time shipping regulations and a not-so-health-conscious public discouraged the effort. After the war, Japan continued stevia research, and since the 1970s, has declared it a safe addition to over 70 food products, including candy, ice cream, cookies, soft drinks, pickles, and chewing gum. Today stevia is used as a sweetener and food additive in many countries, including Paraguay, Brazil, Korea, Thailand, and China. No negative clinical reports have appeared in any of these countries where stevia is readily available.

Stevia in the U.S.

The Stevia Company of Illinois was formed in 1976 to explore the potential of this natural sweetener as a part of the newly health-conscious American market. The company worked on better propagation techniques, hybridized more easily-grown varieties including an American stevia, and acquired patents for the use of stevia extract derivatives in the U.S. as "flavor enhancers." Throughout the 1980s, stevia's sweet leaves could be found in popular commercial teas as a touch of herbal sweetness.

Then in May of 1991, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put an import ban on stevia to stop its use as an unapproved food additive. As defined by the FDA, food additives are considered unsafe until proven safe by domestic toxicity research.

Although Japan has not discovered any toxicity throughout its extensive research in the everyday use of stevia, the FDA will not accept the results of foreign tests on food, drugs, or herbs. And since herbs are not patentable, funding for herbal product research in the U.S. is scant.

Thanks to the Dietary Supplement act of 1994, and a petition from herbal product manufacturer SunRider International, the FDA approved the sale and distribution of stevia as a safe dietary supplement in September of 1995. This gratefully reversed the FDA's 1991 import alert and made stevia once again available to the general U.S. public, albeit in a revised form.

Stevia as a Sweetener

Today, liquid or powdered stevia is sold in health food stores as a dietary supplement, according to current FDA labeling regulations. You can, of course, use it as you please as a sweetener. A sugar-free, no-calorie natural sweetener is especially helpful for people who are diabetic, prone to yeast infections, or trying to lose a few extra pounds by controlling calories.

Add stevia powder or liquid a pinch or drop at a time to tea, coffee, dairy products, or juices and sweeten to taste. Some people detect a slight licorice aftertaste, depending on potency. Finely grind the dried leaves in a mortar and pestle or in your food processor. Add 1 teaspoon of dried leaves to 1 cup of boiling water to make a sweet liquid. Strain, and keep liquid refrigerated. The dried leaves are not quite as potent as the extracts, but they're plenty strong enough.

Because stevioside is highly stable in fruit acids, fruit vinegars are easily sweetened with this remarkable herb. Simply add cornstarch (dissolved in a bit of water) and a little stevia to mint or raspberry vinegar for a quick ice cream sauce. A little diluted liquid stevia added to herbed vinegar makes a dandy "lite" salad dressing at a fraction of the cost. If you like a touch of sugar in tomato dishes, baked beans or barbeque sauce, a tiny bit of stevia is the ticket. Adapting favorite family recipes and baked goods to stevia may take several trials. Baked goods made without sugar don't brown well and need to be checked with a toothpick for doneness. Sugar adds volume to a recipe as well, so the liquid and dry ingredients will need to be drastically adjusted when just a dash of stevia is used. As yet, an easy stevia/sugar conversion chart is not available, but recipes and cookbooks are.

Where to Find Recipes

Fortunately, there are a few cookbooks beginning to surface incorporating this new sweetener that will take the guess-work out of recipe adjustment.

The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates and Linda Schatz contains recipes that use stevia instead of sugar as part of a no-sugar diet to help control candidiasis (yeast overgrowth). Body Ecology recommends Nicolette Dumke's books, Allergy Cooking with Ease and Easy Bread Making for Special Diets (See Stevia Resources), as excellent sources for stevia recipes including sugar-free cakes and cookies.

Growing Stevia

Growing this 1-1/2-foot high mountain shrub is not an easy task. Stevia thrives in high altitudes, is temperamental to grow and rarely sets viable seeds and few greenhouses carry them. A substitute plant to consider, which is more available and far easier to grow, is Lippia dulcis. Very much like stevia, a single leaf will sweeten a cup of tea. Both plants are very tender (zone 9 or 10) or are suitable for greenhouse growing.

Traditional Medicinal Uses

Throughout it's history in Paraguay and South America, stevia (in its whole form-not stevioside) has developed a traditional and clinical reputation for containing various health and skin care benefits. In South America, stevia leaves are sold as an aid for diabetes and hypoglycemia as a blood sugar regulator. It has also has been touted as a bacteria inhibitor that helps fight tooth decay and gum disease (as well as eliminating the need for tooth-decaying sugar).

Water-based extracts of stevia have been used in natural skin care products to soften skin and heal blemishes, as stevia appears to contain anti-bacterial agents.

If you choose to incorporate stevia into your diet, whether it's a drop in your tea or a sugar-free baking solution, more recipes and easy-to-use powders and extracts are becoming available every day. It's certainly is nice to know Mother Nature has a solution for those of us born with a sweet tooth, too.


Dried Leaves: Steep 1 teaspoon of dried leaves in 1 cup boiling water for 5 minutes. Cool, strain and refrigerate the sweet liquid.

Liquid Sweetener: Two drops liquid = 1 teaspoon sugar in sweetness when made from dried leaves or powder. Some prepared liquids may vary. Experiment with a few drops at a time to determine your personal preference.

Finely Ground Powder: 1 tsp. ground stevia = 1 cup sugar in sweetness. To make a liquid solution, dissolve 1 teaspoon stevia powder into 3 tablespoons water. Refrigerate in a dropper bottle.

Herb-Sweet Corn Bread

Replacing the 2 whole eggs with 4 egg whites will result in a lighter-hued bread with only 3 grams of fat per serving.

1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup cornmeal
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon stevia powder
1 cup skim milk
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons canola oil
Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 425° and spray a 9 by 9-inch baking pan. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and stevia. In another bowl whisk together milk, eggs, and oil.

2. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour liquid ingredients into the well and stir until just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Makes 9 servings.

L/O PER SERVING: 156 CAL (26% from fat), 5g PROT, 4.5g FAT, 23g CARB, 455.7mg SOD, 61mg CHOL, 1.5g FIBER.

Sugar-Free Ginger Ale

To serve this refreshing sugar-free beverage, mix 2 to 4 tablespoons of ginger syrup into an iced glass of sparkling water.

3-1/2 cups water
4 inches of ginger root, peeled and chopped (about 3/4 cup)
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 tablespoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon stevia powder
Sparkling water

In a large pot over medium high heat, rapidly boil ginger in water for 10 minutes. Strain out ginger pieces and pour ginger liquid into a jar; stir in vanilla, lemon extract, and stevia. Let cool and store in the refrigerator.

Makes 3 cups.

V PER TABLESPOON: 12 CAL (0% from fat), trg PROT, 0g FAT, 3g CARB, 10mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 0.1g FIBER.

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