The stevia plant is a sweet gift from Mother Nature. The indigenous Guarani people of modern-day Paraguay have used leaves of the stevia shrub since ancient times to sweeten bitter tea and for medicinal potions. Stevia is a member of the sunflower (Asteraceae) family in which there are more than 240 species of herbs and shrubs.
These sweet little leaves are from the species Stevia rebaudiana, commonly known as sweet leaf, sugar leaf, honey leaf, or simply stevia. The extracts from the stevia plant can have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar and are calorie-free.
Growing this waistline-friendly, earth-loving plant is as simple as growing basil or parsley. It loves the garden and the windowsill, and it likes to be harvested.
This article is about the plant, the whole plant and nothing but the plant... we are not talking about the little packets you buy at the store.
- The stevia plant contains sterols and antioxidants that offer many potential health benefits, such as reduced risk of cancer, and assistance with control of blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
- Stevia leaves contain potassium, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B3.
- More than 100 phytochemicals have been discovered in stevia.
- Fresh leaves are best used torn and infused into your favorite hot or cold beverage or dropped into the blender when making smoothies or other frozen drinks.
- Dried stevia leaf is great in dressings, marinades, sauces, relish, chutney, oatmeal, yogurt, and desserts.
- There are four ways to dry stevia leaves:
- Cut a whole branch and hang upside down in cool, dark place until dry enough to crumble.
- Place in oven set to "warm" until crisp.
- Place leaves on baking sheet or newspaper in the sun all day, bring inside and set on counter. They will be ready by the morning.
- Use a dehydrator until crisp.
- Crumble dried stevia or grind into a powder. Keep in two separate glass jars in a spice cabinet.
- Dried fresh stevia leaf powder is about 20 times sweeter than the equivalent amount of sugar.
- Using too much can lead to a bitter-tasting product, so use less than you would think at first then increase to taste.
- Stevia does not caramelize.
- It's trial and error to use in baking!
- It was at the turn of the 19th century when Brazilian researchers started studying this plant with leaves that were "so sweet that just one leaf would sweeten a whole gourd full of bitter yerba mate tea."
- Japan is the largest consumer of stevia leaves and extracts in the world.
- Stevia leaves can be harvested five to six times per season.
- The stevia plant has antiseptic qualities.
- Stevia does not cause cavities.
- You should not be consuming too many sweet foods and beverages, so use stevia in moderation.
Diane Henderiks is a personal chef and culinary nutritionist on a mission to teach America how to cook and eat well. Follow her on Twitter @dhenderiks, "Like" Diane on Facebook, or visit her website.