Alternative Sweeteners: What's the Deal with Stevia?

As an alternative to sugar, stevia seems almost too good to be true. It is naturally-derived, nearly calorie-free, and made with no additional ingredients. It's also even sweeter than sugar, so we don't need to use as much of it. Do you use stevia?

Stevia comes from the leaves of a shrub native to tropical regions in South and Central America, where it's been used in cooking for centuries. You can actually grow your own stevia plants in your garden! The leaves can be used fresh or dried, just like tea and other herbs. Commercially, it's also made into a powder and a concentrated syrup.

The fresh and dried leaves are about 15 times sweeter than sugar, while extracts made from stevia are roughly 300 times as sweet as table sugar. Some people say it has a licorice-like or woody aftertaste, but otherwise it just tastes sweet. Healthwise, raw stevia leaves contain just a few calories and the refined commercial products are virtually calorie free. It also seems that stevia is absorbed by the body more slowly, so it has less of an affect on blood glucose levels than sugar.

Some health concerns have been raised over the years. Studies were conducted in the 1980's that suggested that stevia might be carcinogenic and cause fertility problems, but the evidence has remained inconclusive. In 2008, the FDA cleared purified stevia extracts (specifically rebaudioside A) as being "generally regarded as safe." The leaf can still only be sold as a dietary supplement.

Stevia is most commonly used to add a little sweetness to things like a mug of coffee, salad dressings, or a bowl of yogurt. We haven't used it much in baking so far and we know the conversion from sugar to stevia can be tricky, but it's certainly possible.

For further information, take a look at these links:

Stevia FAQ from Stevia.com
Is Stevia Safe? From Eating Well
Stevia: A New Zero-Calorie Sweetener from the Mayo Clinic
How to Substitute Stevia for Sugar in Baking from eHow.com

What are your thoughts on this sugar alternative?

Related: Agave Nectar: Healthful or Harmful?

(Images: Flickr member onezzzart licensed under Creative Commons and Amazon.com)

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