Sugar & Sweeteners Series #2:
Stevia: A Natural, No-Calorie Sweetener

By Rachel Oppitz, ND

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni) is a small shrub native to Paraguay; it also grows in China, Brazil, and Argentina.  Its leaves contain compounds called glycosides, which are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.  In its unprocessed form, stevia is highly nutritious, containing such vitamins and minerals as magnesium, niacin, zinc, calcium, phosphorus, chromium, potassium, vitamins A and C, and many more.  The leaves also contain fiber, protein, and at least 100 phytonutrients.  Stevia has been used throughout the world as a sweetener for centuries.  In Japan, stevia holds approximately a 52% share of the sweetener market, which includes sugar.  In the US, stevia is sold strictly as a dietary supplement and not as a sweetener.  Please see editors note below.

People in Japan, China, Israel, Brazil, and Paraguay use stevia as a sweetener and for a variety of medicinal purposes, from healing wounds to aiding digestion.  Stevia does not promote cavities and may retard the growth of bacteria found in dental caries.  Because the human body does not metabolize the sweet glycosides (they pass right through the normal elimination channels), the body obtains no calories from stevia; therefore stevia is safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics if it is in its pure, unadulterated form.  For people with blood sugar, blood pressure, or weight problems stevia is the most desirable sweetener. 

Why, then, is stevia not a common feature of restaurants and homes in the U.S.?  Although most research conducted in Japan in the ‘70s and ‘80s showed no evidence that stevia might be carcinogenic, the FDA has designated stevia and its extracts as “unapproved food additives”.  The implication is “use at your own risk”.  Stevia advocates insist that efforts to keep stevia out of the mainstream have little to do with its safety and merely reflect lobbying by the sugar and artificial sweetener industries.  They reason that centuries of use by South American tribes and nearly 50 years of safe use by consumers in other parts of the world, as well as extensive testing in Japan, are testimony enough to the safety of stevia. 

Editors note:  The May 2009 issue of The Herb Companion reports that the FDA approved rebaudioside A (the sweet component of stevia) as a food additive in December of 2008.  We expect to see products featuring stevia as a sweetener in the near future!  Written a couple of years ago, I left the article intact to explain why most people have never heard of what could and should be a diabetics dream. 

Stevia is commercially available in three forms:  dried leaves, powdered extract, and liquid extract.  Stevia can enhance the effect of other sweeteners, like honey and maple syrup, so adding it to recipes can help reduce the amount of sweetener needed.  Unlike artificial sweeteners, the sweet glycosides do not break down in heat which makes stevia an excellent sweetener for cooking and baking. Using stevia requires some experimentation—too much stevia can leave an overpowering aftertaste, while too little produces almost no sweetness.   Plant source, the extraction process, and the presence of fillers can affect stevia’s taste, sometimes creating a bitter flavor.  In the powdered and liquid forms of stevia, fillers such as maltodextrin are added to stevioside, which reduces its sweetness. 

Consumers looking solely for a sweetener which has no calories and which does not alter blood sugar levels will probably prefer the white stevioside powder or consumer products made from stevioside.  However, consumers who also want health restoring benefits will want premium quality leaves, ground or whole and/or water-based stevia extract (concentrate).  Please try products from several vendors until you find one that you like best.

Stevia in liquid form makes it easier to sweeten cereals and drinks like tea, smoothies, or lemonade.  Stevia liquid can be made at home as follows:  add ¼ tsp. stevioside to 1 oz. water.  The flavor can become bitter if too much is added so add the stevia liquid to your drink drop by drop until you have reached the desired sweetness.  Store the liquid in a container with a tight cap in a cool dark place like the refrigerator.

To replace sugar in recipes, substitute 1 cup sugar with 1 ½ to 2 tsp. of ground stevia leaves or ¼ tsp stevioside.  The other ingredients in the recipe may need adjustment so that your product is not too watery.

Click here for our sugar-to-stevia conversion table and recipes, also available in our library.

For recipes, look for The Stevia Cookbook by Ray Sahelian and Baking with Stevia I&II by Rita DePuydt.