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What Is Stevia? A Natural Herbal Alternative to Saccharine and Aspartame

I used to work in my family's restaurant and helped run it. I love good food, and I've cooked family meals for over 60 years.

Stevia looks like sugar, but it's more powdery

Stevia looks like sugar, but it's more powdery

About Stevia, a Herbal Product

After finding out that stevia is a natural product, derived from a herb, I thought I would do a little more research, and then share my knowledge with you.

If you want all the scientific detail about stevia, you will find it on the internet, and this is just a simplified version to inform you without boring you with technicalities.

My Source for This Information

Much of the information in this synopsis about stevia derives from a much more complex article in Wikipedia, as well as the various research papers that are linked to in that article. I am not an expert, but I am good at summarising and simplifying what I have read.

I hope you'll find this article helpful.

My First Encounter With Stevia

I noticed it on the supermarket shelves in London for the first time in 2012, and only recently bought a packet—my particular product is called Pure Via.

My supermarket sells a brand of stevia called Pure Via

My supermarket sells a brand of stevia called Pure Via

What Does Stevia Taste Like?

Stevia is more powdery than sugar and has quite a dfferent texture. I tried it out and thought the flavour was a bit strong and not all that appetizing, so I mixed it with sugar, half-and-half, and then it didn't taste too bad.

However, recently I have used stevia on its own, and, although it tastes “different”, I persevered, in order to become more accustomed to its flavour, just as I have been accustomed to the flavor of Hermesetas which I have been using for most of my life, since my school days in the 1950s.

Stevia and a bowl of sugar. Sometimes I combine the two.

Stevia and a bowl of sugar. Sometimes I combine the two.

Half Stevia / Half Sugar Combo

Eventually I did give up using stevia on its own, as I couldn't get used to the taste—I just didn't like it.

But I've now been using the half-and-half sugar combined with stevia mixture for well over two years, and I don't think twice about it now.

So that's cut down my sugar consumption by over half, and it seems to be fine in cooking.

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I have used Hermesetas for 60 years! I still use it for herbal teas.

I have used Hermesetas for 60 years! I still use it for herbal teas.

My Opinion About Stevia

Stevia is not as nice as sugar, and although it has a sweetish flavor, the sweetness is somehow different from sugar. But if, like me, you have a sweet tooth, not to mention Type 2 Diabetes, it's well worth foregoing sugar at least to some extent, in order to have a healthier diet.

My diabetes is entirely diet-controlled, and my blood sugar levels have much improved since I was first diagnosed a few years ago. I haven't cut sweet things out of my life completely, but I have cut down considerably, and I am very careful to see that I have enough of the other things which help the condition. I've noticed since I have stopped eating so much sweet stuff that when I do overdo it, I suffer from that very unpleasant tingling in my feet and legs known as restless leg syndrome and I also have peripheral neuropathy which causes me shooting pains in my feet, particularly when I've overdone the sweet things. I've lost about 10 pounds in weight, and haven't had restless leg syndrome for a few months now, which I can categorically put down to eating less sugar.

Stevia Rebaudiana, cultivated under glass

Stevia Rebaudiana, cultivated under glass

Botanical Origins of Stevia

The herb Stevia Rebaudiana originates from South America. The leaves of stevia rebaudiana are much sweeter than normal sugar and can be used to sweeten tea and food.

Stevia is named after a Spanish botanist and physician, Pedro Jaime Esteve, who first researched its use in the 16th century. It has been used in South America by the indigenous population for over 1,500 years, for medicinal purposes and as a sweetener.

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

Stevia: Background and Timeline

About 40 years ago, it was suspected that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and cyclamate might be carcinogenic, so in Japan they began to grow stevia instead, using purified steviosides extracted from the leaves, and the first commercial stevia sweetener was developed for marketing in 1971. They used it to sweeten food and soft drinks.

Stevia was approved by the U.S. FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) in 2009 and by the EU (European Union) as fit for use as a food additive in 2011, coming onto the market in 2009 in the USA and only in December 2011 in the UK.

Stevioside and rebaudioside A, extracted from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, have traditionally been used in South America to assist in treating diabetes and it has been found that stevioside stimulates insulin secretion and that rebaudioside A may treat type 2 diabetes mellitus.

It is likely that the refined form of stevia can help in the reduction of hypertension and evaluations are still being conducted. Also, a study in 2009 indicated that “stevioside and related compounds have anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immunomodulatory actions”.

How to Use Stevia in Cooking and Baking

I can't guarantee that you can replace sugar with stevia in all sweet recipes—you would need to check whether sugar has a significant effect on a recipe, for instance it wouldn't be any good if you are making something like fudge, or something where melted sugar is relevant.

However, I did check that sugar when making banana bread does not affect anything except the taste—it doesn't stop the bread from rising or the ingredients bonding; so you can make a tasty sugar-free banana loaf using stevia instead of brown sugar or honey (depending on the recipe).

I've just bought some halva sweetened with stevia and it tasted really nice

I've just bought some halva sweetened with stevia and it tasted really nice

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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