Stevia: How sweet it is

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, February 8, 2017

He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herbs for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth. Psalm 104:14

Stevia is one of the few herbs that offer diabetics and dieters an alternative to sugar. It is the ultimate sweet herb.

For those who want to cut back on sugar without turning to artificial sweeteners, stevia is a must. Its extracts are 100-300 times sweeter than sugar, but with zero calories. While the flavor isn’t an exact match for sugar, it wakes on the tongue more slowly and lingers longer.

It may take a few tries to warm up to stevia, but many find it proves richer and bolder than sugar in the end.

For decades, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) would not approve the sale of stevia extracts as a food item (you could only find it in the supplements aisle), despite evidence that it helped control blood sugar. Then, the agency only approved stevia-based products, like Truvia, made by large companies such as Coca Cola. This political mare’s nest prompted many to simply grow the plant at home, and you can find it at many area nurseries.

In the garden

Set out stevia in spring in full sun to partial shade, in rich, moist soil. Because the herb won’t survive a cold winter, gardeners often grow it as an annual. It also does well in pots, which you can bring inside when the temperature dips below freezing. Tubular white flowers with blushing violet throats arrive in summer or fall, but if you want to enjoy the leaves, pinch back the plants so they don’t get past the earliest bud stage. For use as a sugar substitute, you’ll probably only need one to three stevia plants, and if you keep the roots from freezing, they’ll return next year.

In the kitchen

Leaf content of sweetness varies with cultivation, spacing and propagation, so if you use fresh or dried stevia, sweeten to taste rather than measure. In spring or summer, you can snip off fresh leaves with your hands for sweetening hot tea. For cold beverages, make a simple syrup using equal parts chopped stevia leaves and water: Pour boiling water over the leaves and let the mixture sit overnight (but not more than 24 hours, or the mixture will turn bitter). Strain through a tea strainer or coffee filter and refrigerate.

This syrup is particularly nice for lemonade, limeade or citrus-flavored iced teas.

Drying stevia leaves makes them many times sweeter. To harvest, cut the leaves before flowers appear and spread them on screens to dry completely (a day or two in full sun with low humidity should do it).

Leaves are completely dry when they crumble easily in your hands. Leave them whole or grind the leaves to powder using a blender, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Store in an airtight container. I have grown my own plant, dried and used it and enjoy the no-calorie taste.

Alice Russell, also known as “Me Me,” is a guest columnist. Her email address is

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