What is Stevia?
Stevia rebaudiana is a plant native to Paraguay and Brazil. This plant has a unique quality. When dried its leaves are sweet; 300 times sweeter than sugar. Known as kaa he-he by the Guarani Indians, stevia is truly a natural sweetener.
What makes stevia different from the other “natural” sweeteners available? First, stevia is mostly sold as a dietary supplement. Until this past year, the FDA claimed that it could not confirm the safety of stevia as a sweetener although it has been used as such for centuries. Stevia is a zero calorie, natural sweetener that is directly derived from the S. rebaudiana plant.
The fact that stevia is a natural, zero calorie sweetener is great news for dieters and those who are diabetic. Stevia appears to have no impact on blood glucose levels.
How to Grow Stevia
Stevia rebaudiana is easy to grow. The plant is hardy to zone 10. Many gardeners as far north as zone 8 attest to the plant being hardy. In zone 8 it will die back to the ground but will return in late spring. Other gardeners can grow stevia in pots and bring the plant indoors for the winter. It can be grown on a sunny windowsill.
This plant is one of several hundred species of stevia. However, only Stevia rebaudiana contains enough of the chemical stevioside to give the leaves a sweet taste. It is a member of the same family as sunflowers and chrysanthemums. Stevia rebaudiana plants are available from many nurseries that sell herbs. Its easy to grow. Anyone interested in this plant should give it a try.
How Sweet is Stevia?
How sweet is it? Stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, depending on how it is used. Fresh leaves are sweet and can be used to sweeten tea and other beverages. The fresh leaves of the stevia plant are a natural sweetener and they have a slightly liquorice taste. When the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana are dried, the sweetness increases. They can be crumbled and used in cooking and as a sweetener for drinks. When extracted, it becomes even sweeter. This is where it is 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia cannot be used as a substitute for sugar in baking. Most recipes that call for sugar also require the volume of dry ingredient that sugar adds. Stevia is so much sweeter than sugar that it is impossible to replace that volume. For baking, major experimentation in the kitchen is required to adjust recipes calling for sugar if stevia is used.
Stevia and the FDA
In the US, stevia is usually sold as a dietary supplement since the FDA banned its use as a sweetener many years ago. This may change. Truvia, a stevia based sweetener developed by Cargil and Coca-Cola has FDA approval as a sweetener. It is sold in many markets in the US. Only Truvia has FDA approval at this time. It ought to be interesting to see if other companies are able to follow in Cargil’s footsteps. Stevia as a dietary supplement is available in powder or liquid form. Some brands have a bitter after taste. Trial and error is the only way to find a commercially available product that suits your needs. Fresh or dried stevia from your home is the best way to ensure what you are getting.
The US, Canada, and the European Union ban the sale of stevia as a sweetener. Truvia is the only exception in the US. Other countries have allowed its use for years.
As a natural sweetener, stevia has it all. No calories and sweetness. None of the dangers associated with artificial sweeteners apply to stevia. This is why stevia deserves a place in any home that desires an all natural sweetener with zero calories.