I’m writing this to answer the very logical question asked by some readers. I’ve made it clear that refined, added sugar is bad news, but why is stevia my alternative sweetener of choice?
First, it’s natural. It’s just a plant. The sweetness we use in our kitchens is simply extracted from the Stevia plant, the same way honey or maple syrup is extracted from beehives or maple trees. It’s not lab created like Splenda or Sweet ‘n Low or aspartame.
Secondly, stevia does not cause a blood sugar spike like table sugar or artificial sweeteners do. It might even reduce insulin levels, which is great news for someone with a diabetes problem (like me!).
The best stevia to use is one that is made from the leaves of the plant, as the “bitter” taste some people report comes from the stems. If the leaves are soaked and the sweetness extracted with alcohol (similar to how vanilla extract is made), you’re left with a delightfully pure substance that, when dried, is naturally white in color. You could actually grow Stevia plants in your garden and make your own extract, just like vanilla. It is 100 times sweeter than sugar, so you need far less than you might think to sweeten your drinks or baked goods. It took me some trial and error to find a brand I liked. Sweet Leaf Stevia is very mild, in my opinion, and it doesn’t have any weird bitter or metallic tastes like other brands. It’s also just stevia, no fillers or additional artificial sweeteners (like dextrose) are added.
It does have some nutritional value (including protein!) as it contains minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur and phosphorus. Other properties of the plant (like the tannins and linolenic acid) may be medicinally beneficial. But realistically, I’m using stevia in such small quantities that it’s unlikely I’m receiving any direct health benefit from it. The benefit comes from the fact that I am no longer consuming any sugar, so that damage to my body actually has a chance to heal. I am confident that stevia is not causing more damage to my body, the way artificial sweeteners would. I haven’t found any reliable research to suggest stevia is bad news, so I’m comfortable using it. There are some scary rumors circulating about stevia (such as causing infertility), so do what you feel comfortable doing. You certainly don’t need stevia to eat nutritiously.
What else could I use to replace sugar in my diet?
Raw honey is a perfectly acceptable sweetener to use, with similar nutritional value to stevia. It’s great to swirl some honey in tea when you are sick and need to soothe your throat. Again, whatever nutrition there is in honey is so minimal that it realistically isn’t doing much for your overall health. We also have to consider the impact of honey on blood sugar. It’s still a high glycemic sweetener and will spike your blood sugar, leading to problems in mood lability and eventually, insulin resistance. So proceed with moderation. The 1 cup of honey necessary to sweeten your baked goods is as problematic as 1 cup of sugar.
Monkfruit is another natural alternative sweetener many people use. It’s also called lo han go and is used traditionally in Chinese Medicine. It’s derived from a dried fruit and is sweeter than table sugar. I’ve tried Lankanto Monkfruit, and it was just fine. I found I needed to use more of it to achieve the sweetness I wanted in various recipes, making it more expensive overall. If this is the route you want to go, be sure you’re buying products that are 100% Monkfruit and not combined with any fillers or artificial sweeteners.
Still others use sugar alcohols as an alternative to sugar. They are a kind of sugar/alcohol hybrid, though they are definitely not alcoholic. They do occur naturally in foods, derived from corn, birch or even berries. There are a lot of options in the category of sugar alcohols. The two most widely used and well-tolerated sugar alcohols are xylitol and erythritol. Overall, they are much friendlier on blood sugar, but some (like sorbitol and maltitol) can cause digestive problems when used in higher amounts. Xylitol is also poisonous to dogs, so steer clear of that one if you have a pup in the home. Some people like a combination of sugar alcohols and stevia for baking, as it seems to mellow out the potential power and aftertaste of some of these options. I’ve used the Trim Healthy Mama Gentle Sweet and Super Sweet with happy results, though Sweet Leaf Stevia is still my primary choice.
This blog has a great explanation of the different sweetener options, as well as a handy conversion chart you may find useful! Happy experimenting!