Summer is here and that means lots of ice cold beverages, many of which are packed with sugar. Sodas, pre-packaged teas and even booze, sugar is synonymous with summer time, thirst quenching drinks. But is sugar really that bad? Yes, it really is. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate found naturally in many foods, including fruits and grains. If the only sugar we consumed were in natural, whole foods, we’d all be just fine. But the average American diet is full of refined, nutrient-depleted foods and contains an average of 20 teaspoons of added, refined sugar every day. That’s twice the amount recommended by the USDA.
So what’s wrong with refined sugar? Many things. First, sugar compromises immune function. Two cans of soda (which contain 24 teaspoons of sugar) reduce the efficiency of white blood cells by 92 percent – an effect that lasts up to five hours, according to Kenneth Bock, M.D., an expert in nutritional and environmental health. Since white blood cells are an integral part of your immune system, if you happen to meet a nasty virus or bacteria within five hours of drinking a few colas, your immune system may be unable to fight off the invader.
Refined sugar also overworks the pancreas and adrenal glands as they struggle to keep the blood sugar levels in balance. When you eat sugar, it is quickly absorbed into your blood stream in the form of glucose. This puts your pancreas into overdrive, making insulin (which carries glucose to your cells to be used for energy) to normalize blood sugar levels. But this rapid release of insulin causes a sudden drop in blood sugar. In reaction to the falling blood sugar, excess adrenal cortisone is stimulated to raise blood sugar back to normal. A constantly high intake of simple dietary sugar keeps this roller coaster going and eventually overworks or “burns out” normal pancreas and adrenal function leading to early menopause, adult-onset diabetes, hypoglycemia, and chronic fatigue.
The purpose of eating is to provide your body with nutrients. But since sugar is devoid of nutrients, the body must actually draw from its nutrient reserves to metabolize it. When these storehouses are depleted, the body becomes unable to properly metabolize fatty acids and cholesterol, leading to higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Drawing on the body’s nutrient reserves can also lead to chronic mineral deficits, especially in magnesium (a mineral required for more than 300 different enzyme activities) and chromium (a trace element that regulates hormones such as insulin), putting you at risk for dozens of diseases, from depression to attention deficit disorder to asthma, along with a whole host of other health problems.
While some might think that artificial sweeteners are the best solution to curb our love affair with sugar, others disagree. Artificial sweeteners do eliminate the high calories and carbohydrates associated with sugar, however many believe that these alternatives are unsafe and are actually worse than sugar. So is there yet another alternative available? Yes! And it’s called Stevia!
Using stevia, an all-natural alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners, is gaining increasing popularity worldwide. Stevia rebaudiana, its botanical name, is derived from a plant in the chrysanthemum family grown primarily in South America and Asia. The plant’s intense sweetening qualities are complex molecules called steviosides that are glycosides made of glucose, sophorose and steviol. These are what make stevia up to 300 times sweeter than sugar and non-caloric. These glycosides do not get absorbed into the body; rather simply pass through leaving no calories. The Japanese have used stevia in food applications from soft drinks to soy sauce since the 1970s and recent reports indicate that stevia commands up to an incredible 50% share of Japan’s commercial sweetener market. Moreover countries like Brazil use stevia for the treatment for diabetes.
The advantages to stevia are numerous, so the following are the most frequently cited. In its pure form, it’s non-caloric and doesn’t affect glucose levels, an advantage for diabetics and hypoglycemics. Also, it has no carbohydrates or fat, so it’s great for dieters, especially those watching carb intake. Unlike artificial sweeteners, high quality stevia has little aftertaste when measured properly. It has no known side effects like some chemical sweeteners and has been safely consumed around the world for decades. Actually, stevia’s original medicinal uses date back centuries ago with the Paraguan Indians who mixed the herb in teas for its healing properties. Since stevia is sugar-free, candida sufferers can use it. Health conscious consumers take advantage of stevia to avoid sugar and help prevent diabetes and obesity.
Stevia can be used as a healthy substitute in most sugar applications, including baking and cooking since it is heat stable. The average conversion rate of sugar to stevia is one cup of sugar per one teaspoonful of pure stevia extract. Clearly very little stevia is needed to replace sugar. When used in beverages, stevia dissolves quickly and easily and, depending on your taste preference, only a pinch is needed. The real challenge to using stevia effectively is knowing what ingredients to use in a recipe to make up for the volume and consistency lost with the elimination of sugar, especially in baked goods. That’s why it’s a good idea to find stevia cookbooks with proven recipes when you’re starting out. You can also find some free recipes online. Finally, stevia is not appropriate in recipes that require sugar caramelizing or browning like meringues.
Stevia is available in many forms including liquid, teas, plants/leaves, pure white and green powdered extract and powdered blends with different fillers. In baking, the pure extract is used primarily and, in some cases, the liquid variety. Stevia can be purchased at health food stores, natural grocers, food coops and online. Currently a big push is underway to expand distribution into grocery stores, vitamin shops and drugstores.
My favorite brand is SweetLeaf Stevia as it the stevia extract is removed from the leaf by a water process as opposed to a chemical process, making it healthy, eco and tasty! Go forth and have a sweet summer!