Stevia, sweet leaf {Stevia rebaudiana}

Family: Asteraceae

Stevia is an amazing traditional noncaloric sweetener. The active compounds are up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, but stevia does not cause tooth decay or raise blood sugar levels. In the face of the diabetes epidemic, it’s time to take a good look at this beautiful plant.

Description:

Native to tropical regions of Paraguay and traditionally used to sweeten mate` tea {a popular South American caffeinated drink}, this tender shrub has scalloped green leaves and tiny white flowers, and it grows to 2 feet tall. In warm, humid climates the leaves will be almost 2 inches long, but they’re much smaller if the plant grows in cooler conditions or if it’s stressed.

Preparations and Dosage:

Add stevia leaves – fresh, dried, liquid-extracted, or powdered – to recipes in which you use sugar or other sweeteners. Follow recipe guidelines and don’t be afraid to experiment; however, in large doses, stevia can be overpowering and have an unpleasant undertone. Some people describe its after-taste as licorice-like and sometimes slightly bitter {although you will now find products with very little aftertaste}. Make a tincture from your own plants with a menstruum of 25 percent ethanol {you can use 50-proof vodka}, and keep it in 1- or 2- ounce dropper bottles that you can bring with you to sweeten drinks and foods. Of course, you can also finely powder your own dried leaves or make a dried extract.

Healing Properties:

In the United States, stevia is used almost exclusively to sweeten foods and drinks. But unlike sugar, stevia extracts have some “side benefits” {as opposed to “side effects”}. It does not raise or lower blood sugar or blood pressure, and it has been shown to actually inhibit tooth decay. It has no calories and is fairly stable in cooking. It also aids digestion and settles the stomach.

stevia imageIn parts of South America, stevia was and still is traditionally recommended to treat hypertension, for use as a diuretic and cardiotonic {strengthening the heart muscle}, for preventing cavities and even to fight fatigue, depression, and infections. Some recent American studies have shown that it is able to significantly reduce blood pressure and improve the quality of life. Other studies, including those focused on type 1 and 2 diabetes, blood pressure, blood glucose, and glycated hemoglobin tests {a measure of possible diabetes} have shown more mixed results.

Safety:

Fairly large clinical trials uncovered no tolerability or safety issues. Stevia has been used in the food industry to flavor drinks for many years, particularly in Japan and South America. Many studies on stevia’s safety have been published, and after initial confusion and misregulation in the 1990’s, it is now classified as GRAS {generally recognized as safe} by the FDA.

In the Garden:

Stevia DSC01639.JPGIf you do not live in the tropics, this yummy plant will be annual for you. It’s the perfect herb for a sunny windowsill or bright porch. Outside, it will also need full sun, moist but not soggy soil, and good drainage. Give it some fertilizer and make sure that it is grown in rich soil. Stevia loves humidity, so it grows well in a greenhouse and will appreciate occasional misting where-ever you place it. Grow it in a pot on the deck and take it indoors in the winter, unless you live in a completely frost-free area.

Starting stevia from seed can be frustrating: The seed will only mature during long, humid growing seasons, and germination rates are very low. If you try this method, be sure to keep the seed on the surface of the soil, just pressing it in, and keep it consistently moist. You will have more success with stem cuttings and root divisions.

Harvesting Stevia:

Only use the leaves, since the stems will have a slightly stronger taste and edge toward bitterness. For best results, snip the leaves before the plant flowers. If you’re harvesting them outdoors, be sure to keep the harvest in the shade. While drying, maintaining a low, steady heat to avoid browning.

Source: Stevia, sweet leaf {Stevia rebaudiana}

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