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Stevia used as a sugar substitute
by Dr. Rachel Roberts Oppitz
From Billings Gazette - 2005-09-25

Dear Dr. Oppitz: So if sugar and artificial sweeteners are out, are there natural sweeteners available? - D.D., Billings

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 and vitamins A and C. 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 percent share of the sweetener market, which includes sugar. In the United States, stevia is sold strictly as a dietary supplement and not as a sweetener.

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. 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 it is safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics 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 it might be carcinogenic, the Food and Drug Administration has designated stevia and its extracts as "unapproved food additives." The implication is "use at your own risk."

Stevia advocates insist efforts to keep it out of the mainstream merely reflect lobbying by the sugar and artificial sweetener industries. They reason that centuries of use by South American tribes and 50 years of use by worldwide consumers are testimony enough to the safety of stevia.

Stevia is commercially available in three forms: Dried leaves, powdered extract and liquid extract. Stevia can enhance the effect of other sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, so adding it to recipes can help reduce the amount of sweetener needed.

Unlike artificial sweeteners, 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 can leave an overpowering aftertaste, while too little produces almost no sweetness.

Plant source, 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, reducing sweetness.

Consumers looking for a sweetener with no calories and which doesn't alter blood sugar levels will probably prefer the white stevioside powder. However, consumers who also want health-restoring benefits will want premium quality leaves or water-based stevia extract.

Stevia in liquid form makes it easier to sweeten cereals and drinks such as tea, smoothies or lemonade. Stevia liquid can be made at home by adding 1/4 teaspoon stevioside to one ounce of water.

To replace sugar in recipes, substitute one cup of sugar with 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of ground stevia leaves or 1/4 teaspoon stevioside. Other ingredients in the recipe may need adjustment.

For more recipes, refer to "The Stevia Cookbook," by Ray Sahelian or "Baking with Stevia Iⅈ," by Rita DePuydt. Additionally, I have included recipes using stevia and a sugar/stevia conversion table at our Web site at

Rachel Roberts Oppitz, ND, is a resident at Yellowstone Naturopathic Clinic. She completed pre-med at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. She received her doctorate of naturopathic medicine from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland.


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