Sweeten your garden this summer by planting Stevia, a natural sugar alternative that you can grow in your own backyard!
The nutrition tables have been turned upside down on us. For decades saturated fats and salt were demonized, while it seems that all the time, the real devil in the pantry was sugar. Last year I resolved to reduce the amount of processed sugar in my diet and planted Stevia in my garden.
A native shrub of South America, the people of Brazil and Paraguay have been using Stevia leaves for hundreds of years to sweeten teas and medicines, as well as in sweet treats. Part of the Asteraceae family, Stevia rebaudiana is related to the daisy, with leaves that are 150 times sweeter than sugar, yet have none of the negative effects of processed sugar or artificial sweeteners. Containing numerous phytonutrients and trace minerals, the leaves have been reported to stabilize blood glucose levels as well as reducing sweet cravings. Safe to eat on a regular basis, Stevia is possibly the only food crop being grown that has both health benefits and zero calories!
I have tried store-bought Stevia powder in the past and found that it left a strange ‘after taste’ in the mouth, but knowing that homegrown herbs and vegetables always taste far superior to store bought produce, I thought it was worth another try.
Hardy to zone 11, I can only grow Stevia as an annual, which I started from seeds in late March, in a sunny windowsill of my kitchen. I purchased Sweetie Star Stevia seeds from Richters, this is what they say have to say on the matter of taste:
Sweetie Star…. Best tasting stevia! This is by far the best tasting stevia on the market. There is almost none of the metallic bitterness normally associated with stevia. This lingering bitterness is a common knock against stevia, and many who have tried stevia in the past have been disappointed because of it. ’Sweetie Star’ shifts the natural balance of steviol compounds from the bitter toward the sweet, and the result is pure joy for the palate. This is a major improvement for stevia. Those who have tried and disliked stevia in the past will be pleasantly surprised.
Compared to many vegetables, the seeds are relatively expensive, being $7 for a small packet of seeds. The packet rated the ease of germination as moderate and I definitely found that to be the case, with only 6 plants germinating very slowly from the entire packet. I had to nurse the seedlings along until they were large enough to transplant into large pots which I kept in the greenhouse until all danger of frost had passed.
Along with the seeds, I purchased a small book; ‘Growing and Using Stevia‘, that has some useful growing information and recipes to try. Stevia is a “short day” plant, meaning that as the days become shorter, the plants will start to flower and run to seed. Gardeners in northern latitudes with longer days have an advantage over their southern cousins, with plants continuing to grow leaves rather than flowers. Here in Nova Scotia, I was able to harvest the leaves continuously until the end of September before the plants wanted to bloom. I was looking forward to seeing the flowers but although the plants formed flower buds, the season wasn’t quite long enough for them to open.
As a first experiment with the leaves, I made Apple Mint Lemonade, by steeping 4 leaves of fresh Stevia with a handful of apple mint leaves in 2 litres of boiling water. Once the sweetened liquid had cooled, I added the juice of 4 lemons. The end result was a delicious, refreshing drink perfect for hot days.
For baking, I dried the leaves in a dehydrator and then ground them to a powder. The substitution rate is 3-4 teaspoons in place of 1 cup of sugar, but using the powder hasn’t been quite as straight forward as a simple substitution; my first attempt at cookies was not great! In addition to substituting Stevia for sugar, adjustments also have to be made for the absence of the moisture and stickiness that sugar adds to a recipe. With a bit of ‘trial and error’, I have found that adding apple sauce, to the recipe helps a lot.
According to the USDA, 100g of apple sauce contains 15g sugar, so my recipes still have a small amount of sugar in them. Since I’m only interested in reducing the sugar, rather than depriving myself of an occasional sweet treat, adding a little bit of homemade applesauce seems like a happy compromise, so I shall be making apple sauce and growing Stevia again this summer.
Yesterday was a blustery, snowy, ‘indoorsy’ sort of day, so I baked these sugar-free, Chia Seed Chocolate Brownies. I wouldn’t describe these brownies as sweet but if you’re a chocoholic that yearns for dark, bitter chocolate on stormy days, then they fit the bill perfectly!
Chia Seed Chocolate Brownies Ingredients: 1/2 cup butter 1/2 cup applesauce 1/2 cup water 1/3 cup chia seeds 3 tablespoons flax meal 1 egg 1 tablespoon vanilla 1 cup flour - works well with wheat flour or gluten free flour 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon ground stevia powder 1/2 cup ground almonds 1 cup dark chocolate chips - use 70% cocoa content for less sugar Optional: 1/2 cup dried cranberries Instructions: Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9x9 inch square baking tray. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the applesauce and water and cook for an additional minute, whisking until smooth. Remove from heat. Whisk in chia seeds, flax, and vanilla. Cool slightly, Then stir in egg until well incorporated. Combine all the dry ingredients and add to the saucepan to make a batter. Pour into the greased baking tray and bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer comes out cleanly. Cool completely before serving. I find that the brownies improve if left until the following day.