I had been planning to wait and do a huge post on various sweeteners, but I get so many questions about stevia, and it really is its own animal (er, vegetable?), so it’s getting its very own post now.
First the basics: Stevia (stevia rebaudiana) is actually a plant. A shrub to be more specific. It contains substances called steviol glycosides which impart sweetness and can, depending on processing, be up to 450 times sweeter than sugar! Although a traditional food and sweetener in many cultures, stevia is the fairly new darling of the American diet and health food world because although it is very sweet, it does not raise blood glucose levels. Studies are finding it to be an insulin sensitizer, and anecdotal evidence says that using stevia will not lead to an increase in cravings for sweet foods, which the use of both traditional and artificial sweeteners have been found to do. In its clean forms (see below) stevia is generally consider Paleo/ Primal, and is acceptable on Whole Life Challenge.
We grow stevia plants in large pots on our back deck, and they are very easy to cultivate organically. (Stevia is even known to be a natural insect repellent for your garden!) I’ve heard it recommended to purchase an established starter plant rather than beginning from your own seeds, as the amount of stevioside in seeds can vary greatly. I buy organic plants each year at our farmer’s market. I love having the pots on our back deck; Abi will often pick leaves right off the plant to chew on while she plays outside. The fresh leaves have a clean, sweet taste with no aftertaste.
As I’m certain you’ve seen, there are many stevia products. Many of these are not so good, over-processed and full of fillers. Let’s go over the options, and then how to best use stevia.
Green Stevia Leaves
Dried organic green stevia leaves can be ground to usable powder or used to make a liquid extract (see below). They are not expensive to buy, but you can also dry your own if you have a stevia plant.
Simply cut stems from your plant using pruning shears (leave about 6″ so the plant will continue to grow) and wash them. One option is to then discard the stems, which are bitter, and place the leaves on dehydrator screens. Dry at 105-110 degrees until leaves are crumbly and crispy.
What I typically do instead is let the leaves dry out in the sunshine. I hang the entire stems upside down using a homemade contraption consisting of a wire hanger and small binder clips. When the leaves are dry, I pluck them off the stems. Obviously, this is not the best method to use on a humid day.
Note: Drying over eight hours can lead to diminished sweetness.
Green Stevia Powder
As long as the only ingredient is organic green stevia leaves, this is a great product to have in your pantry. I buy this one, and use it quite often.
White Stevia Powder
Ahhhhh. Here’s the rub. There are tons of white stevia powders, all of them advertised as natural and healthy. But most are not what they claim to be, due to processing and additives.
Turning a green plant leaf into a white powder sounds like a lot of processing to me. However, there are various methods, some much more benign than others.
The stevia herb is green because of chlorophyll. To make the white powder, we soak leaves in cool water, and over a period of soaking time, all the nutrients are extracted. Then we use a series of filters of various molecular pores (sizes) which can extract various compounds and separate them. We end up the four most desirable glycosides, the sweet compounds in the leaves.
Scientists used to think there were eleven glycosides, but now know there are over 25. When they are separated, you have white powder because the chlorophyll is removed. No bleaches or chemicals ever touch the product.
This kind of cool water extraction sounds OK to me. NuNaturals (*make sure to read below for more info on this brand) also uses this cool water extraction. White stevia powders extracted in this way are often sold as dietary supplements rather than sweeteners.
Other processes use acetone, acetonitrile, methanol, ethanol and isopropanol for extraction and crystallization. It’s important to note that some brands start with cool water extraction and then continue with further chemical processing. (Also important to note: Both SweetLeaf and NuNaturals start from non-GMO stevia leaves.)
Because extracted white stevia powder is about 300-450 times sweeter than sugar, it does need a carrier to make it usable in the kitchen. Sweetleaf brand uses only inulin, a soluble fiber found in all fruits and vegetables, as a carrier. Other common additives and flowing agents are dextrose and maltodextrin, both carbohydrates derived from corn and similar to sugar, or erythritol, a sugar alcohol derived from corn (remember that most of the time we are talking about GMO corn).
The NuNaturals product I linked above is their “pure white stevia powder.” I choose not to use it because it also includes “natural flavors,” which could be any of upwards of 50 different chemicals. They also sell a “white stevia extract” which is cut with maltodextrin. This gives me a not-so-nice feeling about NuNaturals products in general, and I tend to avoid them.
My final verdict on white stevia powder? I will usually opt for other stevia products, but I do keep some SweetLeaf packets in my house, in case I ever need them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with SweetLeaf’s white powder, I just have a gut feeling that the green leaf stevia is more how we’re intended to use it, so I prefer that. (I definitely avoid Truvia, Pure Via and Stevia in the Raw.)
I gotta tell you: This is the easiest way to use stevia. A couple drops added to anything and boom! Sweetness. You’ve probably even noticed vanilla flavored ones on the market, along with several other varieties.
Once again, the healthfulness of each product comes down to the extraction and processing methods (see above) and additional ingredients.
Liquid stevia extracts often use alcohol or glycerin as carrying agents. There isn’t anything inherently awful about those ingredients, although some people prefer to avoid alcohol, and I generally avoid ingesting glycerin. Other ingredients you may see are natural flavors (see above) and grapefruit seed extract. Both should be avoided.
Once again for me, though, liquid stevia extracts are something I tended to avoid because they just seemed too processed. That is, until I learned how to make my own liquid stevia extract. And it turns out to be super easy!
This method is straight from Food Renegade‘s post How to Make Liquid Stevia Extract, with just a few of my notes:
Place your stevia leaves in a glass jar, then pour vodka over them to coat. [Notes: If using leaves from your stevia plant, you still want to dry them first. You can then chop them, but do not powder them or they'll be difficult to strain out. As to the vodka, I use Rain organic. Ciroc may be a good choice if you are looking for a non-corn/ grain vodka.]
Put the lid on your jar, shake it up, and let it sit on your counter for 24-36 hours. Don’t let it sit for longer than 36 hours, as it will turn more bitter.
Next, filter out the leaves. You can do this by pouring the extract through a coffee filter or cheesecloth.
At this point, you have two options.
1) Keep the alcohol-containing liquid stevia extract. To do this, transfer into a colored glass bottle (for light reduction), and store in a room temperature, dark place for up to 2-4 years. [Note: Here are great 4 oz. amber glass bottles with droppers.]
2) Remove the alcohol from the liquid stevia extract. To do this, gently heat the extract over low-heat for 20-30 minutes. DO NOT BOIL. If your extract comes to a boil, you will overheat the glycosides and destroy the sweet taste. The longer you heat the extract, the thicker and more syrup-like it will become. I’ve found that on my electric stove top on low, 20 minutes is about ideal. Transfer into a colored glass tincture bottle and store in your refrigerator for up to 3 months.
Although it’s easy enough to empty a packet into a cup of coffee, or throw some green powder or a squirt a couple of drops into a smoothie, there are a few things to remember to use stevia successfully in other ways.
One of the keys to really using stevia well is to combine it with other sweeteners (for example, honey or dates). This also saves you money, since stevia is so sweet that using even just a tiny bit allows you to greatly reduce the amount of expensive sweeteners used in your recipes. Combining it with another sweetener will help avoid the bitter taste or aftertaste that is sometimes imparted by stevia (more so by the white powder).
Stevia is very useful for frozen desserts because unlike traditional sweeteners, its taste does not fade with colder temperatures.
It is very important to realize that all forms of stevia come in different concentrations. Use the amounts below as a guide to help you determine how much to start with. Remember to start with a smaller amount and add more if needed. These will vary slightly by brand. (Also keep in mind when substituting that stevia will not brown like sugar, and will not add texture or bulk to your recipes.)
One more note: These cute and teensy little stainless steel measuring spoons make working with the small amounts of stevia powder easier.
As sweet as 1 tsp. sugar:
1/8 tsp. green stevia powder
Dust on spoon – 1/16 tsp. white stevia extract*
2 – 4 drops liquid stevia extract
As sweet as 1 Tbsp. sugar:
3/8 tsp. green stevia powder
1/2 pinch – almost 1/4 tsp. white stevia extract*
6-9 drops liquid stevia extract
As sweet as 1/4 cup sugar:
1-1/2 tsp. green stevia powder
Pinch – 1/4 tsp. white stevia extract* (You can see the ratios change as the amounts increase.)
1/4 tsp. liquid stevia extract
As sweet as 1/2 cup sugar:
1 Tbsp. green stevia powder
Up to 1/2 tsp. white stevia extract*
1/2 tsp. liquid stevia
As sweet as 1 cup sugar:
2 Tbsp. green stevia powder
Up to 1 tsp. white stevia extract*
1 tsp. liquid stevia extract
*White stevia extract, when used here, is the kind with a carrier agent. A super potent product like the NuNaturals powder linked above will be sweeter. See the product packaging for conversion.
I’m pretty sure that is everything I know about stevia. What about you? Ready to give it a try? Or maybe a second try?
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