What is Stevia?

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Stevia is actually a plant and an FDA-approved sweetener. If you were to go to Brazil or Paraguay, you’d discover that the people there have been using stevia for centuries, for many purposes. As a plant-based sweetener, it has only recently made a name for itself in the U.S.A. Starting around the year 2008, food companies started sweetening everything from bread to vitamin water with white powdered stevia. It has since become a popular, ubiquitous sugar substitute.

If you ever drink coffee, you know that not all sweeteners are created equal. Some leave a weird aftertaste. Others taste “artificial” because they are– Sweet’N Low and NutraSweet are synthetic artificial sweeteners.

Nonetheless, people love to add sweeteners to their coffee and other drinks. So it’s a big market. We Americans crave that sugary sweetness!

Stevia is essentially a smart alternative to sugar, and it’s actually twice as strong, so a little goes a long way. Did you know that because it’s so sweet in such small amounts that manufacturers typically bulk it up using cornstarch and other natural fillers so it can be easily poured into beverages? Stevia can be found in soda pop (like Coke Life and Pepsi True) as well as little packets you’d find at diners and restaurants, to mix it into your coffee.

Like most things, there’s pure stevia and then there’s the stevia you’ll find in various food products that has been paired up with other substances. For example, a packet of the Truvia-brand sweetener has stevia leaf extract in it– sure– but it also has erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol. So you have to be vigilant in reading labels to know exactly what you’re getting when you see “stevia” on labels.

For bakers, stevia can act as a replacement for sugar, though it should be noted that it doesn’t caramelize (it doesn’t brown the way sugar does). Interestingly, stevia is available in both liquid and powdered concentrates. And, to top it off, stevia is calorie-free, which appeals to quite a few people, especially those who are watching their weight. Other sugar substitutes, like honey, maple syrup and molasses, are not calorie-free, so you can see why stevia really took off!

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