Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a shrubby, flowering plant in the daisy family that’s native to South America, where the indigenous Guaraní people have used the leaf for more than 1,500 years. Also known as Sweet Herb of Paraguay, Honey Plant, Sweet Leaf and Yerba Dulce, stevia contains more than a half dozen glycosides, such as steviosode and rebaudioside, which tickle the tongue with a sensation of sweetness that’s 150 to 300 times greater than that imposed by sugar. However, these compounds are non-caloric and are not metabolized by the body. This means that you can satisfy your sweet tooth without affecting blood sugar or padding your waistline.
The herb is ideal for sweetening beverages like teas and lemonade, as well as fresh fruit, smoothies, syrups and sorbets. It can also replace some but not all of the sugar called for in recipes for baked goods. This is because the latter is necessary for certain chemical reactions, like leavening and caramelization. While the dried herb can be added directly to foods, it’s far more common to use liquid infusions, extracts and tinctures instead.
It’s easy to make your own liquid stevia sweeteners in your own kitchen without any special skills or equipment. All you need is a small amount of the dried herb, which contains a more highly concentrated glycoside content than fresh. You may wonder…”Why not just use one of the stevia products sold in the supermarket?” You could, of course, but you would be using a highly processed product that barely resembles the real thing in composition because the plant is subjected to a host of toxic chemical solvents to produce a “purified” form of Rebaudioside A, an ingredient typically listed on product labels as Reb A or Rebiana. This involves a patented 40-step extraction process that uses acetone, isopropanol, ethanol and a variety of other questionable chemicals.
The Bitter Truth
Currently, although whole stevia leaf and “crude” stevia extracts are legally available in the US under the protection of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the FDA does not approve of the herb’s use as a sweetener. The agency does, however, permit the use of the chemically-derived stevia compound Rebaudioside A as a food additive. Per the agency’s guidelines:
“FDA has not permitted the use of whole-leaf Stevia or crude Stevia extracts because these substances have not been approved for use as a food additive. FDA does not consider their use in food to be GRAS in light of reports in the literature that raise concerns about the use of these substances. Among these concerns are control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems. Food additives and GRAS affirmation petition or pre-petition submissions for the use of such substances that FDA has received in the past have not contained the data and information necessary to establish the safe use of these substances as ingredients in food.”
Despite FDA claims that unrefined stevia compounds are potentially harmful, one can’t ignore that South Americans have safely consumed the whole herb for more than 15 centuries. In fact, stevia has long been used in Brazil to treat diabetes. In addition, there are several studies in the current medical literature that demonstrate the herb actually reduces oxidative stress and other diabetes-related symptoms while providing protection from liver and kidney damage. Other studies indicate that stevia and its compounds may offer anti-inflammatory benefits as well. (See references.)
But here’s where the story gets really interesting …
Bedfellows & Book Burnings
In 1991, the FDA banned the import of stevia leaf after receiving an “anonymous” trade complaint alleging product adulteration against Celestial Seasonings because the company was using stevia extracts in four of its tea blends. In other words, the complaint was made by an industry competitor who coveted an as-of-yet unpatented natural substance and had nothing to do with safety issues. As for exactly who was responsible for filing the complaint, and the rationale behind the FDA’s swift reaction, the popular belief is that industry pressure from the manufacturers of artificial sweeteners like Equal (now produced by Merisant, a company originally formed by the infamous Monsanto Company) was the driving force behind both events. It was a crazy time – FDA agents actually stormed warehouses and other places of business, big or small, to seize and destroy (by burning) stevia inventory as well as related media materials, like cookbooks that included recipes using stevia leaf.
In December 2008, likely once again in response to industry pressure, the FDA approved of the use of rebaudioside compounds chemically extracted and purified by Cargill, six months after the company announced the introduction of an artificial sweetener that would later be marketed as Truvia. Move along, folks…nothing to read between the lines here.
DIY: How Sweet It Is
When making homemade stevia liquid extracts and tinctures, it’s best to start with the dried herb. Unless you grow your own, be sure to obtain dried organic stevia leaf from a trusted source (see Resources). That said, prepare your liquid sweetener of choice using one of the following methods:
Stevia Infusion (Tea)
Steep 1 tablespoon dried stevia leaf in 2 cups boiling water for 10 minutes. Strain and store the reserved liquid in the refrigerator for up to a week.
1 teaspoon stevia tea = 1 teaspoon sugar
For each cup of boiling water, use ½ cup dried stevia leaf, lightly crushed. Steep 30 minutes, then strain through filtered paper. Transfer to an amber-colored glass bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to 14 days.
1 teaspoon stevia extract = 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon stevia extract = ¼ cup sugar
Place ½ cup dried stevia leaf in a mason jar or other container with a tight-fitting lid. Cover with 1 cup of the highest proof vodka you can find. Set in a cool, dark place to infuse for at least 24 hours but no more than 36 hours (it will turn bitter after that point). Strain and gently heat the reserved liquid in a saucepan or the top of a double boiler on the lowest possible setting for 20 minutes. Do NOT allow to boil. (This removes most of the alcohol and produces a concentrated product.) Remove from heat. When cool, pour into an amber-colored glass bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
3 drops stevia tincture = 1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon stevia tincture = ¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon stevia tincture = ½ cup sugar
Shivanna N, Naika M, Khanum F, Kaul VK.; Antioxidant, anti-diabetic and renal protective properties of Stevia rebaudiana.; J Diabetes Complications. 2013 Mar-Apr;27(2):103-13