All About Stevia*
* with apologies to Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock (though from what I hear about the movie, they should be apologizing to us).
[Stevia-sweetened giant baked apple pancake]
How did it get to be Sunday already, and five days since my last post? Well, I haven’t been lounging around watching soap operas and eating bon-bons, that’s for sure (just watching soap operas–I’m not allowed bon-bons on the ACD, silly!). Actually, my dear friend Sterlin has been visiting from England, and I’ve been spending as much time as possible with her (including a surprise birthday party–with Sterlin as the guest of honor–yesterday evening). And though I cooked up a storm for the party, most of the dishes were tried-and-true Indian fare, many of which I’ve already shared on this blog. I fully intended to try out a few new recipes, but ran out of steam, and time, before the party.
[Dishes I contributed to the party: (clockwise, starting with the rice): broth-cooked basmati; peas in a creamy curry sauce; okra masala; cauliflower and pear curry from Celine and Joni's upcoming cookbook; lentil dal; and creamy eggplant stew in the center (also from the upcoming cookbook).]
So, instead of a new recipe today, I thought I’d address a topic that’s garnered a bit of attention on my blog over the past year or so, both from me and from readers. In fact, over the past month, I’ve received quite a few emails asking me about the ways in which I use stevia (the predominant sweetener allowed on the ACD, along with vegetable glycerin or yacon syrup, which I use only rarely).
For anyone just starting out on the ACD, anyone required to eat low-glycemic or low-carb foods (ie, diabetics, people watching their weight, and so on) or anyone interested in ditching artificial sweeteners, stevia is an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener that you might like to try.
*Please note: I am not a scientist, a chemist, or an expert on stevia, and this post is not intended as advice for anyone contemplating using the sweetener. I’m writing about my own personal experience with stevia, and this is my own, personal, opinion.
How I Discovered Stevia
In the home of my childhood, sweets and desserts were ubiquitous. My mother was an accomplished from-scratch baker and my father, an immigrant to the country, was accustomed to a big slice of home-made cake after dinner each evening. Consequently, my sisters and I grew not only to expect freshly baked confections in our house at all times, but also to prefer sweets to any other types of foods.
As I grew older and my sweet tooth became more ferocious, I began to leap on every chance to eat something sweet without the caloric consequences. When saccharin first became available in Canada, The Nurse and I concocted a cream-cheese based cherry cheesecake sweetened entirely with Sweet N Low (my mouth still puckers at the thought). Later, I found myself buying Weight Watchers Mousse (containing aspartame) in bulk, as I’d often consume an entire batch (supposedly enough for six people) for dinner. When I lived on my own, I stocked Diet Pepsi as if I were hoarding for the next pandemic, and would often imbibe a liter or two of the stuff almost daily.
Needless to say, my sweets addiction got me into some trouble, not once, but twice. About a year ago, I found myself afflicted once again (the previous time had been 10 years prior) with a raging case of systemic candida. The only solution? A strict, relatively restrictive diet and herbal (and, in my case, prescription) anti-fungal medications.
When I was in nutrition school, there was a lot of buzz about a “new” herbal sweetener called stevia. I must admit, I was a bit wary at first (perhaps it was my Pavlovian response to any sweetener that came in little blue packets), but I’ve come to appreciate and even love the mighty sweetleaf. And this time round, it’s certainly allowed me to placate a persistent sweet tooth even while adhering to the diet that will eventually restore my overall health and digestive balance.
What is Stevia?
While the Stevia rebaudiana plant (a leafy shrub) is native to Brazil and Paraguay, it’s actually been grown here in Ontario since 1987, which may explain why Canadians are more familiar with the sweetener than Americans (it’s been designated as GRAS–generally recognized as safe–only since 2008 in the US). Still, stevia is considered an herbal supplement in Canada, so you won’t find it on supermarket shelves next to the Equal; instead, it’s available at health food stores. It’s also the most popular sweetener in Japan, where they’ve been using it to replace artificial sweeteners since 1971.
When the stevia leaves are dried and the liquids extracted, the compounds acquired (called stevioside and rebaudioside) give stevia its sweetness (at about 250-300 times sweeter than sugar). The 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. Liquids usually have food-grade alcohol (such as they use with vanilla extract) or glycerin (for a non-alcohol version) added. Just a few drops of the liquid offers sweetness equal to 1-2 tsp (5-10 ml) of sugar. (The powder is premixed with dry bulking agents such as cellulose, dextrose, or maltodextrin so that one packet equals about 1 tsp/5 ml of sugar). You can also consume the fresh leaves, which are about 30-45 times sweeter than sugar. [information from here].
Are There Problems Associated with Stevia?
If you’re concerned about possible side effects or health risks, you should know that there have been some studies that indicated genetic mutations in animals who ingested large amounts of the herb. However, these studies haven’t been replicated on humans. Additionally, stevia has been used for hundreds of years in its countries of origin, as well as longterm in Japan (where it’s the number one sweetener, before sugar).
Because it’s derived from a plant and undergoes very little processing, I would much prefer to use stevia than any of the artificial, chemical-based, sweeteners such as Equal or Splenda (and I take issue with those who refer to stevia as “another artificial sweetener”; to my mind, that’s a misnomer). Like saccharin or aspartame, stevia adds zero calories to your food; it tastes very sweet; and it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels.
The difference between stevia and sucralose or sodium cyclamate, however, is that stevia exists as-is in nature, and doesn’t require laboratory procedures to be made sweet. In fact, I’m a little leery of some of the new products like PureVia or Truvia (and please note that I’ve never tried either one of them) that extract only the rebaudioside A only (it’s one of the factors that makes stevia sweet) so they can manufacture sweeteners from it. Why not continue to use the whole plant (you can steep the leaves like tea leaves) or the natural, whole extract from the whole leaves, as people have done for centuries? For my part, I’ll use only products labeled as whole “stevia,” containing that one ingredient only, rather than those with trademarked names that are not “stevia.”
[Blended Breakfast Cereal, stevia-sweetened.]
Where is Stevia Best Used?
I tend to prefer using stevia in foods that are naturally sweet to begin with or recipes that require very little sugar (1/4 cup or less), as well as recipes in which the texture isn’t changed (much) by the addition of sugar. For instance, my favorite use is in my morning smoothie or bowl of oatmeal. It’s also great as a sweetener in salad dressings, puddings, pancakes and pie fillings, since they don’t rely as much on sugar to produce a particular texture.
The greatest challenge with stevia, I think, is using it in baking, because its intense sweetness (up to 300 times sweeter than sugar) permits only a minute amount to be added to batters or dough. When you substitute 10 drops (or 1/4 teaspoon powder) for 1 cup of sugar, you alter the dry-to-wet ratio in your baked good, as well as the chemical reaction that takes place with baking. As a result, I’ve had to experiment quite a bit with my stevia-sweetened baked goods. Keep that in mind if you try stevia as a sugar replacement. (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, my digestive system hasn’t taken kindly to the added ingredients, so I avoid them.).
[Lemon-Blueberry Muffins, sweetened with stevia.]
If you do use stevia in baked goods, remember that you’ll need to compensate for the loss of sugar as a binding agent (due to caramelization when it’s baked). Instead, try using nut or seed butters, or fruit purées in place of some of the sugar, as I do in this recipe. You can find other stevia-based desserts like cookies, puddings and cupcakes with frosting (plus some savory dishes as well) in my ebook, Anti-Candida Feast.
My Favorite Brands of Stevia
Until this year, the only brand of stevia I used was NOW Foods’ brand, as it was the one most readily available here. I prefer the liquid (some people have noted a slight bitterness or aftertaste with the powder; I’ve never found this to be the case with the liquid).
Recently, however, I’ve had the opporunity to try out a few other brands, as well, such as Stevia in the Raw (powder, extract of whole stevia), which I won in a blog giveaway; NuNaturals (vanilla and unflavored liquid) and Stevita chocolate flavor (both of which I received as samples for review on this blog).
Granted, this isn’t a representative sample of all the brands out there, and I’m always scouring the local health food store for other brands. While I loved the NuNaturals and Stevita brands, I did notice that they require a bit more volume than the NOW brand to achieve the same sweetening power (so if I need only 5 drops of NOW stevia to sweeten my bowl of oatmeal, I need up to 10 of the others for the same degree of sweetness). I haven’t detected any bitter aftertaste in any of these brands, though, so perhaps I’m just one of those lucky people with a genetic quirk of the tastebuds that doesn’t register that particular type of bitterness (then again, I also adore brussels sprouts).
Is there anything else you’d like to know about the ACD, my diet, recipes on the blog or any of the ingredients I use? I plan to post more informational blog entries like this one on occasion, in which I answer readers’ questions or address comments related to the diet. So let me know what you’d like me to cover!
“Mum, I know there have been some tests on animals, but dogs can enjoy stevia too, can’t they? Because, you know, we don’t want to give up taste-testing those Carob-Coconut Sweeties you make.”
Other Stevia-sweetened goodies:
- Love Bites (chocolate fudge)
- Matcha Chocolate Truffles
- Apple Pumpkin Crumble Bars
- Cinnamon Spiced Coconut Bark
- Celebration Pear and Cranberry Cornmeal Cake
- Grain-Free Coconut Macaroons
- Raw Cookie Dough Truffles
- Grain-Free Coconut Macaroons
- Black Bean Chocolate Fudge
Last Year at this Time: Chinese Scallion Pancakes
Two Years Ago: Sweet Potato Pancakes (not latkes)
© 2010 Diet, Dessert and Dogs