Thank goodness there's an answer, and it isn't artificial sweeteners--we all know the health risks of aspartame, saccharin, cyclamate, acesulfam potassium, neotame, or even sucralose (also known as Splenda). Nope, one terrific answer is STEVIA--Stevia rebaudiana. (I'll discuss the other answer, Agave syrup, tomorrow.) 300 times sweeter than sugar, this herb has a negligible effect on blood glucose, so it's a great alternative for folks with blood sugar issues (diabetics, for instance).
Like anything, it should be used in moderation--not because of any side affects or health risks, but because that's the prudent way to live. Stevia has undergone numerous toxicity tests and none have shown any harmful effects (few substances can make this claim). The real test though, is centuries of continuous use by South American natives. In addition, thousands of tons of stevia extracts have been consumed over the last twenty years in many countries with NO harmful effects ever reported.
And look at these other amazing benefits:
- Stevia's calorie count is almost zero (due to its unique molecular construction).
- Research is showing that long term use is producing mild strengthening of the heart and vascular system.
- Research is showing Stevia can be an effective digestive aid.
- Research shows many strains of dental bacteria do not thrive in the presence of stevioside--unlike sugar, scientists think Stevia may actually be good for our teeth!
- Approximately 1 tsp Stevia extract powder (there are several brands out there now) or 3-4 tsp Green Stevia powder (directions for exact substitutions are on labels) = 1 C sugar.
- It stores well, so we can buy in bulk if we like. It should be kept in a sealed jar--no refrigeration needed.
- It may not brown as well, but browning can be improved through use of other ingredients such as fats or milk.
- For baking with it, use either slightly less liquid or slightly more flour than would be used in recipes with sugar.
- Stevia is fluffier than sugar so it scatters with the slightest disturbance. Thus recipes call for thoroughly mixing it with either dry or liquid ingredients.
- To sweeten raw fruits, first dissolve it in a teaspoon or two of lemon juice or water and then stir it into the fruit.
- Use stainless steel or oven-proof glassware if the food is to be left in the pan after baking.
APRICOT PINEAPPLE PIE (a chilled pie that's easy to make)
1 baked 9-inch pie shell
1 can (16 oz) sugar free apricot halves OR 2 C fresh apricot halves, simmered in 1/2 C water for 5 min.
1 can (8 oz) sugar free crushed pineapple OR 1 1/2 C fresh pineapple chunks simmered in 1/3 C water for 5 min.
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 C + 1 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot powder
3/4 tsp Stevia extract powder
1/2 C unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp vanilla
Whipped cream (sweetened with Stevia, of course)
Unsweetened coconut, toasted
Drain appricot halves and reserve 1/2 C juice. Pour remaining juice into medium saucepan and cut apricots into small pieces. Add apricots, pineapple with its juice, and salt to saucepan. Bring to a boil. dissolve cornstarch in reserved 1/2 C juice and stir into heated fruit. Reduce to simmer and cook, stirring, until mixture thickens.
Dissolve Stevia in applesauce and add to filling. Stir in vanilla. Cool to room temperature, pour into crust, and chill until surface firms. Cover with plastic and chill several hours. Top with sweetened whipped cream, then sprinkle toasted coconut over all.
NO-BAKE PEANUT BUTTER FRUIT BARS (Yields 36 bars)
1/4 C sugar free applesauce
3/4 tsp Stevia extract powder
1 tsp vanilla
2/3 C old fashioned peanut butter
3/4 C chopped dates (I think we could substitute raisins here)
1/2 - 3/4 C chopped pecans
1/4 C nonfat dry milk, or more for firmer bars
2 Tbsp butter, softened
2/3 C old fashioned oats
2 Tbsp butter
1 C sugar free carob chips (or traditional chocolate chips, but be aware you're adding some sugar)
Measure applesauce, stevia, and vanilla extract into a medium bowl and stir with a wooden spoon. Add peanut butter, dates, pecans, dry milk, and 2 Tbsp butter. Mix well.
Toast oats in heavy skillet over medium heat about 6 min. Stir often. Oats will darken only slightly. Combine with applesauce mixture and press into a greased, 8-inch square dish.
Use same skillet to melt 2 Tbsp butter over low heat. Evenly sprinkle in carob chips and allow to melt about halfway. Do not stir. Slip the partially melted mass atop the bar mixture and spread. Cool. Cut and serve.