Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Wonderful World of Stevia

Five years ago if I had been writing a post about stevia it probably would've been titled "The So-So World of Stevia." When I first heard about this natural, sweet herb, I was initially really excited about it. Not only was it 300 times as sweet as sugar, but it was calorie and carbohydrate free. For a person like me who easily gains weight if I overdose on carbs, this sounded perfect.

The first step to entering the world of stevia was to actually buy some. I eyed it several times at our health food stores, but I had a hard time forking out the cash. It came in tiny containers that were over $10. When bags of sugar could be purchased for pennies, this was tough to reconcile in my mind. Finally, though, I took the plunge and bought my very first container of white stevia powder. I went with what seemed to be the top name brand - SweetLeaf.

When I got home I set out to make some stevia cookies right away. The results were less than what I'd hoped for and I was disappointed. The flavor of stevia seemed strong and almost bitter. I looked for more recipes on-line and tried a few other things like chocolate cheesecake bites, which also didn't live up to my expectations.

For two years, I experimented off and on with stevia powder, and was usually underwhelmed by my creations. Later, I found liquid stevia for sale by SweetLeaf, and tried it with my tea. Now that I could handle. It only took 4-5 drops in a cup of tea to create a pleasantly sweet drink without any weirdness in taste.

Not long after this that I found out about agave nectar. Agave became my sweetener of choice. Not only did it taste like sugar, but it also acted a lot like sugar in most recipes so that I could bake all my favorite desserts again (stevia, because it lacks bulk, caused problems in my recipes - many things turned out flat and dense). While I adored agave, I still faced the same problem as before - I was eating too many carbs, making weight loss and weight maintenance difficult. Because it is a fruit sugar, agave still has lots of carbs. It's nicer than most sweeteners because it has less effect on blood sugar, but other than that benefit, my baked goods were still jam-packed with carbohydrates.

Two years ago for Christmas my husband got me this stevia cookbook. Some of the recipes called for very obscure ingredients, or combined stevia with other sweeteners, but there were a few gems that I have made again and again. The Frozen Strawberry Cream and the Mexican Wedding Cakes recipes are worth the cost of the cookbook! I was encouraged that there really are some excellent stevia uses out there.

The main thing I've learned about stevia usage over the years is that it's better to use a little than to use too much. If you use too much stevia, it will ruin the recipe. The key is in finding the perfect amount for your particular recipe, which may take some experimentation. I've also found that stevia works well with certain types of foods. I love it in drinks, sauces, marinades, and in some baked goods.

Something else I've learned more recently about stevia is that it does take some getting used to. It's not sugar. I had to get my brain wrapped around that concept before I could learn to accept it. I had wanted it to be sugar. It can't be sugar, but it can sweeten food. When I first started using stevia I had a hard time with the taste. Now? I actually enjoy the taste! I can eat something sweetened with stevia and think "Mmm, that's stevia." and actually like it. I guess it makes sense that after almost 30 years of using sugar for my sweetening needs, that it would take some time to accept something different. I owe much of my stevia appreciation to my husband, who wouldn't give up on it. Even when I'd thrown up my hands in frustration after countless attempts to use it, he pressed on, and began doing his own recipe experimentation.

I have many stevia recipes now and look forward to finding even more. It is such a versatile sweetener; it's not just for desserts either. You can add a few drops to pizza sauce, or shake a little into your taco meat mix, or into soups or stews.

I love how stevia is finally becoming more mainstream. At health stores it's usually in the "supplements" section (since the FDA has not recognized it as a sweetener... there's plenty of controversy on that topic out there if you want to do your own Google research). But at stores like Trader Joe's, it's (rightfully, IMO!) in the baked goods section with the flour and honey and agave and vanilla.

One final thing worth mentioning here is that not all stevias are equal. I still find SweetLeaf brand to be the best, most reliable company for stevia. It also tastes better, with less chance of that bitterness I discussed earlier. There are some less expensive brands out there to be sure, but they often include fillers, and sometimes even added sweeteners.

I will be sharing some of my favorite stevia recipes here for you.

For starters, here is my:

Easy Pizza Sauce

1 can (15 oz.) sugar-free tomato sauce
1 small can sugar-free tomato paste
1 Tbsp. oregano
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. basil
1/2 tsp. fennel powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder (opt.)
10 drops liquid stevia

Mix all ingredients together in a small sauce pan, heat on medium until bubbly. Use immediately or refrigerate (or freeze) for later use.

Other easy stevia uses:

To sweeten a cup of tea, brew tea as you normally would, then add 3-5 drops liquid stevia and stir. You can do this with hot or cold tea.

Like chocolate milk? Try Stevita Delight. Mmmm. My husband got me some of this for Christmas and I love it. You mix 1-2 tsp. of Stevita Delight with 8 oz. of your choice of milk and shake it up or blend it up well.

If you have a favorite stevia use, I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

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