If growing your own calorie-free, natural sweetener sounds too good to be true, it’s time to get to know stevia. Native to Paraguay and other tropical areas of the Americas, the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) produces leaves packed with super-sweet compounds that remain stable even after the leaves have been dried. Stevia leaves have been used to sweeten teas and beverages throughout South America for centuries.
More recently, diabetics and dieters alike have turned to stevia to reduce their sugar intake because, unlike honey, maple syrup, agave or molasses, this natural sweetener has zero calories and is not metabolized by the body. Stevia is especially well-suited to sweetening drinks, fruits, salad dressings, yogurt and most creamy desserts. Stevia can substitute for some, but not all, of the sugar used when baking, because it does not provide all of the multiple functions that sugar does.
The Whole-Leaf Stevia Difference
Many commercial drink mixes and packaged sugar substitutes are sweetened with a derivative of stevia. This sweetening compound is called Rebaudioside A and is listed on labels as either Reb A or Rebiana. These are highly processed products developed by large food corporations. Most of the raw stevia used to produce these products is grown in China. These “natural sweeteners” have been stripped of many of the plant’s healthful properties. Teas, extracts and tinctures made from high-quality, whole-leaf stevia, on the other hand, contain up to seven sweet compounds (glycosides) and an array of antioxidants.
Growing Stevia Plants
Growing stevia is easy in well-drained beds or large containers, and the leaves can be dried for winter use like any other herb. Stevia grows best in warm conditions similar to those preferred by basil. Plants grown in warm climates will grow to 24 inches tall and wide. Where summers are cool, expect stevia plants to grow up to 16 inches. Grow three to five plants for a year’s supply of dried stevia leaves.