In the world of non-sugar sweeteners stevia extract tends to be looked upon more favorably due its natural origins. Stevia rebaudiana is a plant native to South America and has been used as a sweetener by the people there for hundreds of years. Stevia was originally approved only as a dietary supplement in the United States, but its extract, rebaudioside A, was approved as a food additive in 2008 by the FDA, being granted Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status.
As a dietary supplement stevia is familiar to many of us in various forms. The company Body First makes two very affordable versions of stevia – a liquid extract and a powder. The prices on both products are well below the average, but the flavor is not. The taste is hard to evaluate, as stevia should taste rather innocuous. I found both the liquid and powder sweet and enjoyable when mixed in with my beverages or foods. The taste was sweet, but not distracting and had no unpleasant undertones or aftertaste.
I used the liquid extract in my tea. It only takes a couple drops to sweeten a whole mug, though, so be careful. I have also noticed a tendency for the stevia liquid extract to settle, so if I don’t drink my tea fast enough it becomes increasingly sweet as I reach the bottom. The bottle also makes note, albeit in tiny lettering, to shake well before using.
Having both liquid extract and powder in your kitchen is handy. The powdered stevia is useful for baking purposes and other cooking involving dry ingredients, where as the liquid extract works better to mix in with drinks and wet ingredients.
Beyond the benefits of low-calorie and low-sugar eating, stevia is surrounded by a variety of other claims. It has been traditionally used in South America as a treatment for diabetes. Interestingly, even though stevia does not contain the calories of sugar, it may still invoke a moderate insulin response. This means in people who have high insulin, stevia has a beneficial effect.One study showed stevia had “anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, [and] diuretic” qualities. And a 2006 World Health Organization report concluded that stevia ingredients stevioside and rebaudioside A were not only non-toxic, but showed some signs of positive effects on patients with hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
While there remains a lack of overwhelming evidence to back up the medical claims surrounding stevia, its usefulness as a sweetener is accepted around the world at this point. It seems a good alternative for sugar for those of us craving a sweet flavor and certainly seems to lack the negative qualities found in artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin.