What's the Deal with Stevia?

stevia

Americans consume close to 130 pounds of sugar a year, which is 4 times more than the recommended daily allowance. Yikes! It's highly addictive, and overconsumption of it can lead to diabetes, weight gain, and even depression. People who are trying to control their sugar intake often turn to artificial sweeteners, such as Nutrasweet (aspartame), Splenda (sucralose), or saccharin. Those are all horrible for you, and you should be avoiding them at all costs. 

The Stevia Plant

But, there is an alternative sweetener that's actually found in nature, and not made in a lab. It's called stevia, which is a plant native to South America. Its extract is 200 times sweeter than sugar, but it does not cause an increase in blood insulin levels.

Unfortunately, the stevia extract you find in stores is not the same stevia extract you'd get if you grew the plants yourself and made your own stevia extract. The FDA has not yet approved the sale of just plain old stevia. What it has done is approve the sale of rebaudioside A (or Reb-A) compounds derived from the stevia plant by Cargill and PepsiCo. It is a highly processed form of stevia that takes approximately 40 steps, using chemicals like acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol. That doesn't sound healthy, does it?

Which Stevia Products Are Safe?

That's a tricky question, in part. You should, for sure, avoid Truvia. Its main component is the patented Reb-A formula. It also contains erythritol, which could be okay, except for the fact that the erythritol used in Truvia is not the same as you'd find in nature. It's also made in a lab using GMO corn and another complex fermentation process. And don't get me started on the "natural flavors" that they use to mask the sometimes unpleasant aftertaste of stevia. 

But, there are products that seem like a better alternative, like Stevia in the Raw. Sounds better, right? Well, no. It contains dextrose, which is a sweetener made from GMO corn with yet another long manufacturing process, just like erythritol. And how about certified organic stevia? There are some on the shelves that contain agave inulin than stevia as well as silica...yes, the stuff you find in little packets in some products that say "Do Not Eat."

So, what is safe to buy? If you have a Trader Joe's near you, they sell an unadulterated form in a small bottle. If you're nowhere near a Trader Joe's, you can grow your own stevia plants, or you can order dried stevia leaves from many organic herb stores online. To make a liquid extract, there are some great recipes you can find here and here (with pictures!). 

Have you tried making your own stevia powder or extract? Have your own special recipe? Let me know in the comments!