Stevia is a herbal plant originating in South America. It has been used for centuries as a natural sweetener and is a lot sweeter than sugar. It has no calories, no carbs and scores a zero on the glycemic index so it is certainly an attractive alternative to artificial sweeteners for those wishing to cut back on sugar.
The approval for use of stevia varies from country to country, and therefore its availability varies too. Some countries have approved it as a food supplement, but not as a sweetener, or as a sweetener only in some products. Other countries have full approval for it in all uses. In the UK and the rest of the European Union it is approved as both a food additive and a dietary supplement. It is available in powder, liquid or tablet form. The Stevia available in UK supermarkets tends to be combined with other sweeteners, so if you want to buy the pure stevia, you will probably need to get it from a health food store or online. I think the position is similar in the US, although the FDA appear to have changed their position on stevia a few times, so it is an evolving issue.
A lot of people successfully grow stevia at home, and use the leaves to make their own sweetener. I’m tempted to have a go at this myself.
Stevia can be used successfully in cooking as it is heat stable, but it does not caramelise, so couldn’t be used where caramelisation is required. It can be used for such things as sweetening hot drinks or to sprinkle over cereal. As it is a lot sweeter than sugar, you can’t do a straight swap with sugar without adjusting the volume. A conversion table is available here - There are a few recipes using stevia available on that website too, or even more recipes are available here
I had a go at making a ginger syrup using a recipe from the stevia.net website:
4 Cups of water
4 or 5 inches of fresh ginger
Half a teaspoon of white stevia powder
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon extract
Peel the ginger and chop finely. Boil the water in a pan and add the ginger and stevia. Simmer for 10 minutes on a low heat. Strain it and stir in the vanilla and lemon. Refrigerate. They suggest pouring the syrup onto ice cubes and topping up with sparkling water to make ginger ale. That’s what I did, which you can see in the picture at the top; it was lovely and refreshing (notice how I attempted to detract from the fact that it looks like dishwater, by clever use of a slice of kiwi!). The syrup could also be used as a cordial with still water, or as a kind of ginger tea if mixed with hot water.
Most sites I found state that stevia is safe for diabetics, however I did see a suggestion somewhere that as stevia can sometimes lower blood sugar, it could exacerbate the effect of diabetic medication that reduces blood sugar, which could potentially make the level drop too low. I’m not sure if that is proven or not, but as always if you are diabetic, do consult your medical practitioner before making dietary changes.
As with almost all sweeteners, there is some controversy surrounding stevia, with some studies showing possible harmful effects if taken in large amounts, and other studies disputing those findings and recording no toxicity. Personally, it seems to me a good and healthier alternative to either sugar or artificial sweeteners, to at least use occasionally, but please don’t take my word for it for yourself, I’m not a medical practioner or scientist!
Are you familiar with stevia? Do you ever use it yourself?
This post is part of a series of posts on alternatives to sugar. Other parts are available here –