3.05.2012

on the sweet things in life...

During a recent get-together with some fellow bloggers, I found myself talking for far too long about what stevia is, and why I like to use it so much. Since it appears in just about every other recipe I post, I figured it's time for me to give you the rundown. Keep in mind that there are lots of opinions about the sweeteners listed below, and we are always learning new things. You should do your own research before you make changes to your diet.

What is stevia?
Stevia is a sweetener that is derived from a sweet-tasting herb. You can get it in three forms: the dried leaves, the powdered form, or the liquid form. The powdered and liquid forms are made by extracting the chemicals that give the plant its sweetness and are what most people use in the kitchen. Stevia can be up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, so much less is required in recipes than sugar.


Why do you use it instead of sugar?
Stevia has no effect on blood sugar levels and is completely unrelated to sugar at the molecular level. It essentially lets you avoid all of the bad stuff that comes with sugar. Multiple safety tests have found no negative effects of stevia consumption, unlike chemical sweeteners such as sucralose or aspartame. I am a huge fan of stevia, because the only way I can minimize sugar in my diet is to substitute in a different sweetener (I have a major sweet tooth!). The downside to stevia is that it has a strange (kind of bitter) aftertaste, which can be minimized by buying higher quality brands, but pickier eaters might be bothered by this no matter what.

Where do I get it?
You can find stevia at health food stores (like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's), usually in the spice or supplement sections. It's pretty easy to find it at regular grocery stores too, though it might be in the natural/health food aisle. I order mine online, because I find that the brand makes a big difference in taste and I can't always find what I want at the store. My preference is NuNaturals Liquid Stevia. It's expensive, but because it is so potent, one bottle lasts a long time.


How do I substitute stevia for sugar?
Very carefully. Since stevia is so concentrated, it can't just be substituted into most recipes without making up for the bulk lost from sugar. Additionally, sugar usually contributes a lot to the texture of a dish, so subbing out can be risky business. I find that stevia works best in non-baked dishes, like smoothies or oatmeal. I also use it in my coffee. If you are trying to adapt a recipe, the sweetness of sugar can be matched with the ratio of 1 tsp of stevia to 1 cup of sugar. But again, you will need to adapt the recipe in other ways too.

What other sugar substitutes do you use?
In addition to stevia, I do use some forms of sugar that aren't white table sugar. It's important to remember that sugar is sugar, so if you're trying to avoid it, these other sweeteners aren't your best option. But here's why I like them...

Raw Honey
Regular honey that you find in a teddy bear has typically been filtered and heated, removing vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that occur naturally in honey. I like raw honey, which is opaque, and thicker than processed honey. There's no difference in how it's used, but it delivers much more nutrition, and if you buy local, it can even help alleviate allergies.

Maple Syrup
Processed maple syrup is often not maple syrup at all, but artificially flavored high fructose corn syrup. Go check your label! Pure maple syrup is more expensive, but like raw honey, it contains naturally occurring nutrients. I like to buy grade B, which is even less filtered than the grade A syrup, and has a heavy maple flavor.


Agave Syrup
Agave syrup is derived from the sap of a succulent plant, and is often preferred over sugar due to its very low glycemic index. That means it will not cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels, unlike sugar, and so is sometimes used by diabetics. Agave syrup has a very distinct flavor.

Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is also called palm sugar, and is one of my favorite sugar substitutes, because it can be substituted directly for sugar in a one-to-one ratio. It is derived from the sap of the coconut tree, with much of the moisture removed. Coconut sugar is also full of vitamins and minerals, and has a low glycemic index. Brown in color, coconut sugar tastes a bit like brown sugar.


Though I haven't used them much, high quality molasses and brown rice syrup are also considered to be healthier sources of sugar, mostly due to the presence of additional nutrients. Brown sugar and turbinado sugar are less processed versions of white sugar (and so have more nutrients).

If I don't want to use sugar, are there any additional options other than what you've mentioned here?
Yes! Sugar alcohols are derived from sugar, but are calorie-free and do not have any effect on blood sugar levels. I don't really know much about them or their safety. The ones I see most often are sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, and erythritol. They can be substituted into recipes more easily than stevia can, and they taste very similar to sugar. However, they can be difficult for some people to digest, and I generally avoid them since they're very processed. I do find them in a lot of processed "health" foods, so if I'm treating myself to something like that, I generally don't worry about it.

I hope this has been helpful! Whatever decisions you make about your own sugar intake and sources of sweetness, I hope above all else, you are really enjoying your sweet treats and not feeling guilty about indulging.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post! You educated me about stevia! I usually use maple syrup as sweetener in things like oatmeal and pancakes, and brown sugar for baked goods. I might try to find some coconut sugar, though! I have a bottle of agave nectar in my pantry, but I've recently read that it actually is terrible for you. I found that out from reading this blog: http://www.kimberlysnyder.net/blog/2012/02/23/7-foods-you-should-never-ever-eat/
    I'll have to do more research on it, because I'll admit, this is really the only article about agave nectar I've read.

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    1. Yes, I should have mentioned the controversy around agave. I read so much conflicting information that I pretty much stopped using it...but I loved it when I did! =) Thanks for the link...I'll take a gander now.

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  2. very interesting overview and facts! in my sugarless sufferings lately, i've been a huge fan of raw honey, but maybe really should give stevia a try. wonder if it would count towards my lent goals?

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  3. Girl, you are THOR-OUGH! Thank you!

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  4. P.S> Sorry I missed the blogger get together - looks like it was a blast! Next time!

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  5. I substitute sugar a lot all the time - but actually never yet with stevia. I think the price tag scared me off at first.
    I have learned not to sweeten things much or even at all. (when I use it it's usually raw cane, maple syrup or agave(?).
    Have you seen my last post about sugar detox? It's funny how we were kind of on the same page about sugar ;)

    xo
    Happy Monday!

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  6. I tried Truvia because I thought it wouldn't have that after taste, but it does :/ Like you said, the brand makes the difference, I might try the one you posted, thank you :)

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  7. Good information on the sugar alcohols.

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Thanks for making me smile. =)