It’s not the sugar beet, it’s not the maple tree, it’s Stevia. The sweetest herb on earth.
The leaves of Stevia rebaudiana are up to 300 times sweeter than refined sugar but do not elevate blood sugars, making it a great sugar replacement.
Stevia has been used as a natural sweetener for thousands of years in Paraguay. Over the last couple decades the herb has been slowly moving into global markets.
Starting in 1971 Japan embraced the use of stevia in soft drinks and processed foods. In North America the cheap-to-make and highly profitable chemical known as aspartame has dominated the sweetener market.
Why? Stevia may be sweet, but profits are sweeter.
Today many products use stevia and it is a common staple in Health Food Stores.
Depending on the variety used and how it is processed, stevia can have a strong, liquorice flavour that those accustomed to aspartame can find to be an acquired taste.
Grow Your Own
Stevia seeds or plants are readily available for those who want to indulge in the raw product and avoid processed products.
Indigenous to a tropical climate, stevia will promptly fall over dead at the first frost. If you live in a cold climate it is best to plant it in large pots that can be moved indoors for winter. Or simply grow indoors.
You can also lift the roots in the fall and store a cool, dark place in perlite or sand and then set in the ground again come spring. Or you can simply treat it as an annual, harvest the leaves over the summer and then start over again next year from seed.
In the Garden
Stevia (Zone 11+) reaches a height of 75 cm (30 inches) and can spread up to 60 cm (24 inches) wide.
Loose, well drained soil is recommended. The plants need to be well mulched so the surface feeder roots won’t dry out. While this herb requires regular watering in dry periods it has a poor tolerance to water logging or to saline water or soils.
Stevia has pretty foliage but can be a bit long and lanky and tends to flop about. A tomato cage, stakes or trellis can help keep things on the up and up. An even better solution is continuous hair cuts aka harvesting!
Collect leaves as required, preferably in late summer. They can then be dried and crushed into a powder.
As soon as the plant flowers, the leaf production slows down, so be sure to remove any flower buds to encourage
further leaf development. If the plant is left to flower, the leaf tips will take on a slightly bitter overtone. Worse, once flowers go to seed, the plant will have done what it set out to do and think it is time to wrap things up and die. So be sure to nip those flowers off in the bud!
A liquid sweetener can be made by pouring 4 cups (1 litre) of boiling water over one tablespoon (15 ml) of dried leaves and leaving to infuse. Refrigerate and
use within a few days or freeze for later.
If using fresh leaves, multiply the amount by five. Six fresh large leaves chopped fine are equal to 1/2 cup (125 ml) of sugar when substituting in baking or cooked recipes.
You can also make your own liquid stevia extract by combining 1 cup vodka with 3/4 cup fresh stevia leaves in a jar. Shake every day for 2 weeks, and then run through a coffee filter. Add a drop or two to beverages. A couple drops may not seem like much, but keep in mind that stevia can vary from 10 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, depending on a range of factors such as soil, climate and even the time of harvest.
Generally two drops of extract is equal to one teaspoon (5 ml) of sugar.
You can also plunk a fresh leaf right into your tea or coffee.
For lemonade, toss a dozen fresh stevia leaves into a pitcher, cover with boiling water and chill. Squeeze in some fresh lemon juice and you’re done! How healthy and natural is that?
If you also grow lemon balm, toss in a few handfuls of fresh lemon balm leaves along with the fresh stevia, and you have yourself a healthy, calorie free lemonade!
One tablespoon (15 ml) of dried, powdered stevia is equivalent to about one cup (250 ml) of sugar.
Stevia is NOT a true substitute for sugar in all recipes. It doesn’t dissolve, it doesn’t make thick syrup and it won’t brown. It cannot be used to replace sugar in bread recipes, as it won’t interact properly with the yeast. Consider it more of a flavouring, much as you would vanilla.