Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fun New Foods: Stevia

I don't know about you, but I have a major sweet tooth. As evidenced by the fact that I just downed three mint chocolate cookies and some sweetened hot tea (we're having cookie mondays at work, and a batch of cookies just came in today instead). But then, I want to be healthy. So I'm always looking for ways to give something the appearance of sweet without the calories of sugar.

For my daily cup of tea, I normally use Splenda (made out of Sucralose). Splenda has no (or very little) calories, and doesn't have as many negative effects that saccharin and aspartame have (digression: one of my favorite sodas growing up was Tab (aspartame), especially drunk while eating a ham and cheese sub with lettuce, toasted. I once gave a friend in college a Tab to try (my mother sent them out to me), and was accused of trying to poison him).

Back to topic, Splenda. I like Splenda because it blends better than sugar (which just sits at the bottom, so when you start drinking it's not sweet and then it makes your teeth hurt at the bottom). But the part of me that likes all natural foods and ingredients (farmer's market anyone?) doesn't like it so much. It's made from real sugar, so it's a bit better, in my mind, than Sweet n' Low or Equal. But it's still not all natural.

In walks Stevia. I found this at Trader Joe's and figured I'd try it. It does, after all, say "100% Natural" right on the package, and it's calorie free and sugar free.

Wait wait, what? Sugar free? What the hell is it then?

It's made of rice maltodextrin, stevia extract and silica. Stevia extract is actually an herb native to Paraguay. It's not technically a sweetener, it can only be sold in the US as a dietary supplement. Its extracts have about 300 times the sweetness of sugar.

So why isn't it mainstream, if it's all natural and so very very sweet? Well, it seems there's a bit of a health controversy. Some studies have shown that it serves as a liver mutagen, others have proven that it's harmless. Some studies have shown that it increases insulin sensitivity in rats, and promotes insulin production (reducing the effect of diabetes), while some human studies have shown it to reduce hypertension and others have shown that it has no effect on hypertension. The WHO's study found no carcinogenic activity with Stevia and that it might help with hypertension and diabetes, but that further study was needed to determine dosage.

So basically, studies done on rats aren't as relevant as studies done on humans. And a study done on one human isn't going to be relevant for all of us. That Stevia will help one person's diabetes could mutate someone else's liver, you never really can tell in the great lottery of science (you just go on the results of large randomized trials, which are never 100% effective).

At this point, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that it's bad for you, and there is some evidence that it's good for you. So it could be a good alternative.

However, I can't get past the taste. It definitely is sweeter than sugar, but the taste isn't as innocuous. It isn't purely sweet. There's another flavor behind it, that can interact with whatever it is you're drinking/eating it with. I can't really quantify it any better than that, but I'd recommend trying some and finding out whether it's your kind of thing.

11 comments:

Leah J. Utas said...

I've used Stevia. It's okay. Darned hard to bake with, though, so it's not a great substitute.
OTOH, 1/4(or is it 1/8?)tsp of pure stevia =one cup of sugar.

The Lethological Gourmet said...

I haven't tried to bake with it...what does it do? I've baked with Splenda, and while it's not as good as sugar, it's pretty passable.

Leah J. Utas said...

It doesn't provide volume like a cup of sugar does. I never bothered to sort out a way to make it up although I'm sure it can be done.

JavaChick said...

I'm with you - I find Stevia has a nasty taste to it. Fortunately, I don't like sugar in my tea/coffee. I rarely bake these days (used to love it growing up, but then I had a whole family to eat the baked goods). On the rare occasions that I do bake, I'd rather have the real thing - bring on the sugar, butter, etc. I do like a little something sweet in my oatmeal - I've been finding a little maple syrup does the trick.

The Lethological Gourmet said...

Java, I hear you about the baked goods. I don't bake all that often, but when I do I usually don't stint with the butter and sugar. I did try using Splenda once, but it just wasn't as good. I figure, I don't bake that often, so when I do, I might's well go all out :)

Charlotte said...

Up until very recently Stevia was all I used. It has a very metallic aftertaste but you do get used to it after a while. But then I started reading too much stuff about the side effects and now... sigh... i just don't know. BTW, it doesn't work for baking. It doesn't dissolve like sugar does and so baked goods come out very strangely.

Romny said...

Stevia is the natural sugar version of tofu. I've used it in my drinks, but can't have too much of it. It's too sweet for me.

therapydoc said...

three mint chocolate cookies, mmmm. I was in the grocery store the other day and passed by all the really good chocolate, nothing appealed. But mint choc, that's another story.

Sylvia said...

My sister used Stevia like it was her job for over 2 years. Her sweet tooth is 87x stronger than mine. I once tasted tea that she had sweetened with Stevia and I thought I'd bitten into a donut. Crazy.

The Lethological Gourmet said...

Ooh, I guess I didn't research the side effects enough, Charlotte, I should check that out!

The mint chocolate were really good. Then there are chocolate chip cookies today, and caramel and walnut covered apples. Mmm.

Sylvia, that's crazy sweet! One of my co-workers pours packet upon packet upon packet of sugar into his tea every morning until it's so sugary it could practically stand up and walk away...

Jeanne said...

Aspartame molecular catoon.

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