Stevia: Substituting Sugar with Nature's Sweetener

Spritz up summer with the natural zero-calorie sweetener that despite getting less than a warm welcoming from the FDA, is ideal for cold drinks in hot weather.

Once banned for entry at the border where it was actively sought and seized, this South American sweet leaf isn’t an illegal drug at all -- it’s an all-natural, non-caloric sweetener perfect for chilled summertime drinks.  

Although still not considered a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration, great strides have been made for stevia's legalization since 2008, when it became Generally Recognized As Safe by the FDA. 

Before that, it was only authorized for use as a nutitritional supplement, although it's always had the seal of approval from my taste buds.

While I've listed below a few of my favorite concoctions created in the decade since I discovered the naturally sweet leaf, it has centuries of documented human history on its side.

In Paraguay, Brazi, and other northern areas of South America, stevia’s traditional use has far exceeded pleasing the sweet tooth. Aside from sprucing up yerba mate, Guarani indians also used stevia as medicine for a host of ailments including insect bites, infections, hypertension, obesity and depression.

Its use for these conditions and more, most notably diabetes, continue in both modern-day Paraguay and Brazil. 

Although extensive studies have been conducted on the plant, negative effects have yet to be revealed. On the contrary, however, it has been proven to be an effective anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anitbacterial agent with diuretic properties.

In comparison, the artificial sweetener aspartame -- which was approved by the FDA as a food additive -- has been linked to a long list of serious neurological and physical side effects, including brain tumors in rats. Dizziness, fainting, headaches, digestive problems are some of the health complaints that have been reported, while some assert that it mimics more serious illnesses like multiple sclerosis or lupus. 

Despite safety concerns of synthetic sweetener use, you may not see natural stevia served alongside its artificial counterparts at cafes or in mainstream colas -- net yet, anyway.

Although the medicinal plant remains in a relative gray zone of legality, much like another notoriously high-profile medicinal plant, many proponents believe it to be a benign substance and are still pushing for its full recognition as such.

If fact, many in the health world contend that it’s only because corporate giants such as Coca-Cola have expressed interest in patenting recipes using the sweet leaf that the FDA eased up their restrictions on it.

Whatever their motivation, it’s good news for health-conscious consumers who want a natural option.

While it’s possible to grow the plant for personal use, the most common forms of stevia can often be found in conventional grocery stores where they can be usually purchased in powdered form, though I prefer the liquid version for ease of transport as well as ease of use. Many companies now offer liquid stevia in an array of flavors ranging from berry and apricot to hazelnut and chocolate.

Five drops is all it takes to sweeten a drink. I’m still amazed that the two-ounce bottle I bought from a Sprouts about a year ago is still going strong.

With a concentrated, ultra potent sweetness that lends a licorice-like aftertaste when used copiously, I find it’s best in moderation. It’s ideal in tea or cold drinks, and is particularly effective when used to extend the sweetness of small amounts of real sugar, fruit juice or agave nectar.

My favorite way to enjoy stevia is in what I call summertime spritzers that I make easily at home (because I am both a lazy and cheap health foodist.) I simply add one-fourth part of whatever juice is on hand and three parts sparkling water to a glass full of ice, and then three to five drops of stevia.

It’s like a fruity soda with a fraction of the calories and additives, and is a delicious way to water down expensive juices to save money.

Juices like pomegranate, cranberry, cherry-lime or even mint syrup -- which can be made by boiling the fresh herb with stevia and water beforehand -- are some of my favorite flavors. It’s great for keeping smoothies sugar-free, too.

While it doesn’t perfectly mesh in hot coffee drinks, in my opinion anyway, it does make super delicious homemade ice coffees. Just add one part milk to one part of your preferred brew (the milk will cool it down if it’s hot), pour the mixture over ice and then add five to seven drops of stevia.

Of course, it can also replace sugar in your favorite recipes for baked goods and other items. Just consult a conversion table to cook with it.

While diseases like diabetes are at an-all time high, it’s nice to know we can to turn to the Earth instead of the laboratory to get back in synch with our own bodies. Grown in the ground, perfected by nature and persecuted despite the sweet benefits it has to offer, stevia is an asset in an increasing amount of kitchens in this country, including my own.

And I am always on the lookout for new ways to enjoy the newest sweet stuff on the block so please, share your favorite stevia recipes and uses in the comments below.

Martina July 07, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Love the stuff. I read an article about it back in 2004. It was found that any negative effects were usually due to byproducts and additives. Asides from fresh leaves you can easily grow yourself, the best tasting and purest brand is KAL. Whole foods finally started selling it. A few drops of the liquid makes for a sweet treat on most foods and beverages. What I make with it: pumpkin smoothies, puddings, coconut gelatin, homemade pop cycles, homemade 7up, lemonade, add to pancakes, muffins, cookies, glazes, marinades, dress sings...whew! Thanks for the article.
Laura Monteros July 07, 2012 at 10:59 PM
I tried some and was pleasantly surprised. It tastes very sweet when you put a bit on your tongue, but it takes quite a bit more than regular sugar or sweetener to come through in tea. That's OK, no calories. I also like agave, which sweetens better than honey, but it does have those pesky little heat units.
jamessmith July 27, 2012 at 09:33 AM
As stevia is the better choice over artificial sweeteners with a very little harm. i cannot understand the personnel who make a stupid base of little things and do not let the good happen and also misguides most of the people.and not let the people share their views and always give rise to a contradiction http://www.jgsupplements.com/stevia/
jamessmith August 06, 2012 at 05:10 AM
Stevia is the best compliment that any diabetic or non diabetic can get over other sweeteners and i also prefer it as my all time sweetness agent http://www.jgsupplements.com/stevia/


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