Sunday, June 22, 2014

STEVIA – The Sweet Leaf

By Carol Kagan, Franklin County Master Gardener

Stevia Flowers
For over hundreds of years, many countries have used the leaves of the Stevia (STEE-vee-ah) plant (Stevia rebaudiana), native to high altitudes in Paraguay and Brazil, and now it is here in the United States. The extracts from the plant are reported to be 300 times sweeter than sugar.

This plant gained popularity in the U.S. as people began searching for alternatives to sugar in their diets. April Randolph, Nutrition Training Specialist with Penn State, notes in Dining with Diabetes, that not only does Stevia, the sweetener derived from this plant, have zero calories it does not raise blood sugar. This is especially important for those coping with diabetes.

Stevia is sold in grocery stores under various brands - Stevia in the Raw, SweetLeaf, Pure Via, and Truvia. The Mayo Clinic staff has noted that the FDA has determined that these are GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) and the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies have determined that none of the approved artificial sweeteners cause cancer or other serious health problems.

In using Stevia as a sugar substitute, Randolph notes that it can be used in coffee and tea or “even use it in place of sugar in your favorite recipes.” She adds that its heat stable and can be used in cooking and baking.

To estimate how much Stevia to use to replace sugar, Randolph suggests that one-half packet equals 1 teaspoon of sugar while 12 packets replace one-half cup. However, adjust to your taste.

MG Trey Gelbach overwintered his Stevia
Can I Grow My Own Stevia Plant?

The Stevia plant is native to South America and is considered a tender perennial in our area – a plant that needs temperatures above 40° F. and therefore must be sheltered indoors during the cold season. This makes it an ideal container plant.

Stevia rebaudiana seeds are difficult to find and it is recommended to grow plants from seedlings. Plants need six to eight hours of sun and regular watering. Do not overwater or allow them to sit in water.

 Harvest small amounts often or cut bush to about two inches above the pot rim in early summer and again in late summer/early fall just before flowering. Leaves should be harvested as soon a blossoming begins or the first frost is expected.

Stevia leaves drying on a tray (Troy Reid)
As the day length shortens and temperatures cool, bring the plant indoors to a warm room. It will do best if placed under fluorescent or grow lights hung close to the top of the plants.

Using Stevia

There is definitely room for experimenting with both fresh and dried Stevia in different proportions and different foods .While Stevia is primarily considered a sugar substitute, it has its own flavor undertones, an earthiness and sometimes slight honey taste.

The sweetness of Stevia leaves from the plant varies from person to person. While some find the taste pleasant others find it bitter. At a recent herb workshop Master Gardener Jerry Lewis noted he found using the leaves didn't really sweeten his drinks but others noted that they sweetened hot tea and coffee.

Fresh Stevia leaves add sweetness to hot liquids. Three tablespoons of chopped fresh Stevia leaves are equal to about one cup of sugar. If you use two teaspoons of sugar in your coffee, you should just need a pinch or 1/16 teaspoon of fresh leaf.

You can dry Stevia leaves in a warm, dark and dry area. Put a rubber band around the stems and hang. Remove the leaves and store in an airtight container.

When ready to use, grind the leaves into a fine powder. A coffee or spice grinder is useful for this. Approximately one tablespoon of dried stevia is equal to one cup of sugar.

Sweetness of leaves vary, so quantities of dried Stevia powder many need to vary. You should try varied amounts in your foods.
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