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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.
Last week, we learned a little bit more about Splenda and sucralose – the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market right now. Like most artificial foods, there are some potential health concerns with sucralose that leave us wondering “is there any real benefit to using it?” Today, we’re going to look for the all-natural light at the end of the sugar alternative tunnel. Let’s talk about some natural alternatives to sugar.
I took a trip to my local Whole Foods and spent some time in the sugar aisle. This is what I found:
Here are just a few of the items I saw:
-Coconut Palm Sugar
-Monk Fruit sweeteners
I felt overwhelmed.
Ideally, I would like to learn about all the options, because I’m sure they all have their benefits: Where do they come from? Do they have calories? Do they affect blood sugar levels? Do they have an aftertaste? Do they have additional ingredients? These are all the questions I would like to answer. I want to be sure I know what I’m buying and why I’m buying it.
So, where to begin?? I’m going to start with the product I saw the most of: stevia. There were dozens of different types of stevia, blends of stevia, and forms of stevia.
Where Does Stevia Come From?
Stevia is a plant. There are about 240 different species of stevia. The stevia you buy in the stores is extracted from the plant’s leaves. The stevia leaf has been commonly used in South America for sweetening teas or for medicinal treatments…since the 1500’s. The unprocessed stevia leaves are about 30 times sweeter than sugar.
In 1931, scientists isolated the chemical compounds that give stevia its sweet taste: stevioside and rebaudioside. These extracted compounds are 250 – 300 times sweeter than sugar. In addition, they are also very stable, staying sweet in extreme temperatures and pH.
You can actually buy stevia seeds and grow your own! I haven’t tried this, because I feel like my garden is cursed. (We haven’t grown anything except lettuce and 3 jalapeno peppers in the past two years.) The seed reviews I read agreed that stevia is a difficult seed to start, but if you can get the seeds to germinate, they’ll grow like a weed in no time.
-does not increase blood sugar levels
-some research indicates that stevia may actually help increase glucose tolerance
research has shown that 750 – 1500 mg of stevia extract per day may help lower high blood pressure
-research also shows that 1000 mg of stevia extract per day can lower blood glucose numbers by 18%
-in some cultures, strong concentrations of stevia are used as a contraceptive, suggesting that it may have effects on the ability to conceive
-many people complain of a stevia aftertaste that can be bitter
-(If you’re under medical supervision for diabetes or high blood pressure, monitor your condition when adding or increasing your stevia intake.)
Stevia in the US
Although the popularity of stevia is fairly recent in the US, Japan has been using stevia as a sweetener since the 1970’s. In the early 1980’s, tea companies Lipton, Celestial Seasonings, and Traditional Medicinals were using stevia as part of their tea blends. In 1991, FDA marshals seized warehouses full of stevia teas. They claimed that stevia was illegal, since it wasn’t approved by the FDA, which left the tea manufacturers wondering “since when does the FDA have to approve a leaf”? The story is that the artificial sweetener companies heard about the new, all-natural sweetener and tried to shut it down. Despite stevia’s massive presence on the store shelves, whole stevia still isn’t approved by the FDA for use as a sweetener in the US.
So, what’s the stuff on the shelves? Stevia was approved by the FDA in 1995 for use as a dietary supplement. In 2008, the FDA approved the stevia extract rebaudioside A for use as a food additive and gave it the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) stamp of approval. The stevia sweeteners you can buy in the store are made with stevia extract.
What’s in My Stevia?
My first question about stevia is: since whole stevia isn’t approved by the FDA, how do they extract the rebaudioside to get it into my store-bought stevia? Are all stevia brands made the same way?
Turns out, the stevia extraction process ranges from the pure (using water filtration process) to the toxic (using chemical solvents and methanol).
For example, the extracting process used by the Truvia brand of Stevia involves 40 steps…and LOTS of chemicals. Based on the extraction process alone, I wouldn’t choose Truvia. The first ingredient in powdered Truvia is erythritol- a sugar alcohol chemically extracted from genetically modified corn. Do I want to pay for erythritol? No, thanks. How do you feel about it?
In contrast, another leading Stevia manufacturer, SweetLeaf, extracts their rebaudioside using a purified water filtration process and zero chemicals, solvents, or alcohols. Powdered SweetLeaf’s first ingredient is stevia extract and they also add inulin- a soluble fiber from chicory root. I’m much more likely to buy this brand of stevia based on its extraction process and ingredients.
Stevia in the Raw is one of the first stevia products I bought. The “in the raw” name made me think I was buying something more natural and whole. Oops. I got home and then read the label. The first ingredient is dextrose! Other products whose first ingredient is dextrose? Splenda, Pixy Stix. Do I want to pay for dextrose? No, thanks.
As I read more and more labels in the sugar aisle, I started to see a trend…almost all the packets on the shelf are selling something besides stevia. The first ingredient on many labels was dextrose or maltodextrin. Some brands even add “natural flavors” and silica to their stevia. As you start shopping for a sugar alternative, don’t trust the all-natural, organic, wholesome-looking package. Read the ingredients and find out what you’re really paying for.
If you’re looking for JUST stevia, your best bet may be liquid stevia drops. There are lots of different brands offering a liquid stevia extraction. For the most part, the ingredients will be: water, stevia extract, and alcohol. I’ve used these drops in smoothies, soups, iced tea, chocolates, and a few other recipes. I love that the sweetness is already a liquid, so you don’t have to wait for anything to dissolve. I love how easy it is to use and how a few drops can sweeten a whole blender-full of smoothie. I don’t love how tricky the sugar:stevia conversion can be. It definitely takes some trial and error to learn how to use these drops, and I’m still learning! Have you tried liquid stevia drops? Any favorite brands? Tips to share?
DIY Liquid Stevia
The $6-15 price point for liquid stevia drops is a lot to invest in a product you might not even like. The good news is that liquid stevia is dead-easy to make at home for a fraction of the cost. First, you need some dried stevia leaves. You can grow these yourself (the plant is totally legal, by the way) or buy from a source online. I found 1/2 ounce for $1.50 on Etsy. To make the liquid extract:
1.crush the dried stevia leaves and place in a small glass jar (I used a small jelly jar)
2.cover the leaves with some spare vodka
3.let sit for 24 hours (too much longer will extract a bitter taste)
4.strain and remove leaves using a tea strainer or cheesecloth
5. use as is or heat over LOW heat for up to 20 minutes to remove the alcohol
6. store in the fridge
DIY Stevia Powder
Want to skip the manufactured stevia packets altogether? Easy! Using dried stevia leaves (grown yourself or procured online) grind them into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or food processor. Powdered stevia leaves are not as sweet as the extracted compounds, so ? teaspoon of powdered stevia leaves is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of sugar. Personally, I don’t think the powdered stevia leaves work well in liquids, because the sweetness doesn’t dissolve and disperse into the solution like an extract will, but the powder does work well in soups or recipes where you want to add a little sweetness. I like to think of it as any other herb in my spice rack, one that adds sweetness without spice or flavor.
The goal of using a natural alternative sweetener is to substitute sugar, reduce calories, and/or protect your blood sugar levels. I think stevia is a great option given its all-natural source and potential health benefits. However, the taste is not the same as sugar, and it can be a difficult switch if you’re accustomed to using regular sugar. The conversion can be tricky, but I think this no-calorie, all-natural sweetener is worth the learning curve. What are your thoughts on stevia?
We will continue our adventure in the natural sugar alternative aisle with a new and interesting option: monk fruit!