Stevia, also called sweetleaf or sugarleaf, is probably something we have all heard of. It seems to have risen in popularity in recent times and can be found in several of the foods we eat. However, even with this plant’s rising fame, we may not know exactly what it is. With stevia being up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, with relatively no calories, it can be an important component of our modern diets.
Stevia is a perennial herb from the Asteraceae family, which includes the likes of radicchio, artichokes, and sunflowers. It originates from Paraguay, and has been historically used in other areas of South America, including Argentina and Brazil. The South American Guarani people are known to have used stevia, which they called ka’a he’e, for hundreds of years. In 1887, the European botanist Bertoni learned of this herb from native guides in Paraguay. He is the one that gave stevia the Latin binomial name of Stevia rebaudiana.
By the beginning of the 20th century, stevia was being cultivated, and in the 1930’s, Briedel and Lavieille two French chemists, manage to isolate the compounds Stevioside and Rebaudioside, which are the glycosides that give stevia its sweet taste. While in the 1990’s stevia was being used in the USA, it was only allowed to be labeled as a dietary supplement, but finally gained the designation as a food product in 2008.
As far as the nutrition goes for stevia, it does technically have very small amounts of calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, and some vitamins and minerals. However, in the amount consumed in a regular serving or as a food additive, all these are negligible. Therefore, stevia may not sound like a valuable food, but actually it has some amazing benefits.
The glycosides, while they give a sweet taste, aren’t absorbed into the bloodstream, and won’t affect blood sugar or cause an insulin spike. They are instead passed through to the colon where they can be utilized by the bacteria there. This process, along with being relatively calorie free, makes stevia a very good sweetener for diabetics and those trying to lose weight.
Stevia is a natural sweetener and won’t have the side effects that processed sugar alcohols and substitutes may have. Plus, it possesses many compounds, such as caffeic acid, kaempferol, quercetin, triterpenes, and tannins. These compounds are known to help reduce inflammation and risks of certain cancers, boost immunity, and protect cognition.
One safety note that needs to be made is that there have been, in rare instances, those that suffer an allergic reaction to stevia. Typically, those that had a reaction were also severely allergic to ragweed, daisies, and marigolds. There have also been reports of some people experiencing digestive issues such as bloating and cramping, and even slight headaches and dizzy spells. If you suffer any of these when consuming stevia, then don’t consume it anymore.
If stevia is something that does works in your diet, or you just want to grow this herb in your garden for its lovely little white flowers, find a spot that you can devote to your stevia plants, as it is a perennial. However, in areas with short summers, stevia will need to be grown as an annual or in large containers that can be moved inside. Areas with a more tropical climate will allow your stevia plants to grow up to 2’ in height and width, otherwise it tends to stay around 1’. With larger plants, 2-3 plants will give you a year’s supply of leaves to use.
When you plant your stevia, space seedlings 2’ apart, and plant 2 weeks after the last expected frost date in your area. Be sure to choose a spot with well-drained loamy soils and is in full sun, although partial shade is tolerable. Keeping your plants’ roots continually inundated with water, along with poor air circulation in your garden, can lead to wilts, rots, and molds. Although, do water consistently and don’t let roots dry out completely. Pests are not a major concern for stevia.
The leaves of stevia will have the sweetest flavor once the cooler temperatures of fall come around and also just before the plants flower. To harvest these sweet tasting leaves cut the entire stem and strip the leaves and tender tips of the stem off. The leaves can be used fresh to sweeten drinks or in salads.
To make use of your stevia all through the year, it’s best to dry it. Once your stevia has been trimmed from the plant, you can dry it in the sun on a mesh screen or use a dehydrator if you have one. Once dried, the leaves will be ready to crush manually or by using a food processor or something similar. The dried stevia can be stored in an airtight container for several months. As you go to use your dried stevia as a substitute for sugar in recipes, only use about 1/8 of the sugar the recipe calls for.
Speaking of recipes, here is a great one I’d like to share with you that makes novel use of stevia.
Fresh Strawberry Ice Cream
2 cups milk
2 cups cream
24 oz. frozen strawberries
½ cup stevia
Combine all the ingredients in a blender
Blend until smooth
If you have an ice cream maker: place the ice cream mixture in the ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions
If you do not have an ice cream maker: place the ice cream mixture in a freezer safe container and freeze for at least 2 hours
That’s it! There’s your ice cream! If you aren’t into dairy you can use coconut milk (3 cups) and coconut cream (1 cup) in place of the milk and cream. Also don’t be afraid to try other fruits. All berries work really well, and bananas aren’t bad either. If you find this recipe is too sweet or not sweet enough, adjust accordingly the amount of stevia you add to your next batch.
Seemly Suitable Stevia
Whether you are growing stevia to suit your dietary needs, or just for aesthetic reasons alone, this happy little herb would be a plus in anyone’s garden. It grows with minimal maintenance and can add just the right amount of sweet to your culinary creations. So, if you are looking for something a little different, yet extremely useful to grow, give stevia a go!
Schultz-Nelson, J. June 18, 2006. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. College of ACES. University of Illinois Extension. http://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/palette/060618.html