Once banned for entry at the border where it was actively sought and seized, this South American sweet leaf isn’t an illegal drug at all -- it’s an all-natural, non-caloric sweetener perfect for chilled summertime drinks.
Although still not considered a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration, great strides have been made for stevia's legalization since 2008, when it became Generally Recognized As Safe by the FDA.
Before that, it was only authorized for use as a nutitritional supplement, although it's always had the seal of approval from my taste buds.
While I've listed below a few of my favorite concoctions created in the decade since I discovered the naturally sweet leaf, it has centuries of documented human history on its side.
In Paraguay, Brazi, and other northern areas of South America, stevia’s traditional use has far exceeded pleasing the sweet tooth. Aside from sprucing up yerba mate, Guarani indians also used stevia as medicine for a host of ailments including insect bites, infections, hypertension, obesity and depression.
Its use for these conditions and more, most notably diabetes, continue in both modern-day Paraguay and Brazil.
Although extensive studies have been conducted on the plant, negative effects have yet to be revealed. On the contrary, however, it has been proven to be an effective anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anitbacterial agent with diuretic properties.
In comparison, the artificial sweetener aspartame -- which was approved by the FDA as a food additive -- has been linked to a long list of serious neurological and physical side effects, including brain tumors in rats. Dizziness, fainting, headaches, digestive problems are some of the health complaints that have been reported, while some assert that it mimics more serious illnesses like multiple sclerosis or lupus.
Despite safety concerns of synthetic sweetener use, you may not see natural stevia served alongside its artificial counterparts at cafes or in mainstream colas -- net yet, anyway.
Although the medicinal plant remains in a relative gray zone of legality, much like another notoriously high-profile medicinal plant, many proponents believe it to be a benign substance and are still pushing for its full recognition as such.
If fact, many in the health world contend that it’s only because corporate giants such as Coca-Cola have expressed interest in patenting recipes using the sweet leaf that the FDA eased up their restrictions on it.
Whatever their motivation, it’s good news for health-conscious consumers who want a natural option.
While it’s possible to grow the plant for personal use, the most common forms of stevia can often be found in conventional grocery stores where they can be usually purchased in powdered form, though I prefer the liquid version for ease of transport as well as ease of use. Many companies now offer liquid stevia in an array of flavors ranging from berry and apricot to hazelnut and chocolate.
Five drops is all it takes to sweeten a drink. I’m still amazed that the two-ounce bottle I bought from a Sprouts about a year ago is still going strong.
With a concentrated, ultra potent sweetness that lends a licorice-like aftertaste when used copiously, I find it’s best in moderation. It’s ideal in tea or cold drinks, and is particularly effective when used to extend the sweetness of small amounts of real sugar, fruit juice or agave nectar.
My favorite way to enjoy stevia is in what I call summertime spritzers that I make easily at home (because I am both a lazy and cheap health foodist.) I simply add one-fourth part of whatever juice is on hand and three parts sparkling water to a glass full of ice, and then three to five drops of stevia.
It’s like a fruity soda with a fraction of the calories and additives, and is a delicious way to water down expensive juices to save money.
Juices like pomegranate, cranberry, cherry-lime or even mint syrup -- which can be made by boiling the fresh herb with stevia and water beforehand -- are some of my favorite flavors. It’s great for keeping smoothies sugar-free, too.
While it doesn’t perfectly mesh in hot coffee drinks, in my opinion anyway, it does make super delicious homemade ice coffees. Just add one part milk to one part of your preferred brew (the milk will cool it down if it’s hot), pour the mixture over ice and then add five to seven drops of stevia.
Of course, it can also replace sugar in your favorite recipes for baked goods and other items. Just consult a conversion table to cook with it.
While diseases like diabetes are at an-all time high, it’s nice to know we can to turn to the Earth instead of the laboratory to get back in synch with our own bodies. Grown in the ground, perfected by nature and persecuted despite the sweet benefits it has to offer, stevia is an asset in an increasing amount of kitchens in this country, including my own.
And I am always on the lookout for new ways to enjoy the newest sweet stuff on the block so please, share your favorite stevia recipes and uses in the comments below.