Stevia is one of the “new” herbs even though it’s been cultivated and used as a natural sweetener and flavor enhancer for centuries. Native to Paraguay, its leaves were commonly used by the Guarani Indians to enhance the taste of yerba mate tea and medicinal potions, or simply chewed for the sweet taste. Its official “discovery” by a botanist, Bertoni, at the turn of the century and introduction into Japan in the 70’s where it is used to sweeten a variety of food products was a turning point for stevia. It has blossomed into a major export crop and is now cultivated in more than a dozen countries worldwide including South America, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Israel, California and southern Ontario. The Japanese consume 448,000 pounds of stevia each year. Even so, the FDA has turned down three industry requests to use stevia in foods in the U.S. However, due to the 1995 Health Freedom Act, stevia may be sold as a dietary supplement and can be used as long as it is not called a sweetener.
Unique among the nearly 300 species of Stevia plants, Stevia rebaudiana is the only one that contains steviosides which account for its incredible sweetness. It is a small perennial shrub in the Chrysanthemum family which is hardy to zone 10 and has pale-green slightly toothed leaves with pale purple and white flowers. Because it is difficult to grow from seed, it is best to start with small plants however it is important to wait until the danger of frost is past since they are especially sensitive to low temperatures. They grow best in a rich garden soil in full sun with frequent light watering during the summer months and benefit from mulching. Pinching off the tips every three weeks for the first few months encourages side branching and more production. They may also be grown in containers that are at least 14” in diameter and wooden or double pots are best for insulation of the roots. Harvesting must be done before they bloom in fall and they should be hung to dry to prevent a bitter flavor when dry.
Its distinctive flavor is described as sweet with an aftertaste reminiscent of licorice, which blends well with aromatic spices such as ginger and cinnamon and the dried leaves, can be used in brewing tea and tisanes. Herbal vinegar diluted with stevia extract creates a unique salad dressing. You can make an extract by adding a cup of warm water to 1/4c fresh, finely crushed leaves, set it aside for 24 hours then refrigerate. Stevia in its natural ground leaf form is 10 to 15 times sweeter than granulated sugar and some benefits include it is diabetic safe, almost calorie free, does not adversely affect blood sugar, is non-toxic, inhibits the formation of cavities and plaque and is extremely heat stable and may be added to baked beans, barbecue sauce, soups, and stews. However, it cannot provide bulk, will not activate yeast, will not caramelize, and will not counteract the acidity of tomatoes. Despite the fact the FDA requires further research before it will affirm stevia as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), you may have already tasted it in mouthwash and toothpaste. The bottom line: If you use it sparingly (once or twice a day in a cup of tea for example), it isn’t a great threat to you.
Between 1 teaspoon and 1 Tablespoon
dry stevia leaf equals about 1 cup of sugar
STEVIA SIMPLE SYRUP: Pour 1c of warm water over 1/4c fresh bruised stevia leaves and let sit for 24 hours and then refrigerate. Optional: Add 1tsp ascorbic acid as a preservative.
YOGURT "WHIPPED CREAM"
1c of yogurt cheese (drained for 2-3 days until firm)
2Tbs stevia simple syrup
Fold simple syrup into yogurt cheese and use immediately or store in refrigerator for a week. If it "weeps," just pour off and re-whip with fork before serving.
2/3c melted butter
1c mashed bananas (about two)
2 1/2 c whole wheat flour
1tsp baking soda
1tsp dried stevia
1/2 c chopped nuts
Combine eggs, butter, bananas, milk and vanilla until well blended. Combine dry ingredients and add to banana mixture until moistened. Pour into greased 9"x5" loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or until spaghetti pasta comes out clean.