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Satisfy your stevia tooth?
Southerners learning to sweeten up naturally

Here in the South, we like our tea served up so sweet it’ll rot the teeth right out of your head. That’s probably not going to change.

It’s no secret that sugary beverages are the sneaky culprits behind America’s obesity issues. Mostly it’s soda that gets the bad rap. But sweet tea can have as much sugar as a can of Coke:  At around 10 teaspoons per 12-ounce serving, that’s about a handful of the sweet stuff —and in this heat, it takes more than one cup to get refreshed.

Some health-conscious sweet tea lovers have already switched over to sugar substitutes, the rainbow of pink, yellow and blue packets (containing saccharine, aspartame and sucralose respectively, best known by their brand names.)

These three chemical compounds have long held the titles of the most popular calorie-free sweeteners in America of the six approved by the FDA. However, you’re likely start seeing a different-colored packet on restaurant tables soon: Green and white ones containing stevia — the only sanctioned sugar substitute derived from natural sources.

“Stevia is really becoming a popular option even though most people hadn’t even heard of it until a couple of years ago,” muses SheRon Weeks, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Memorial Health Medical Center. “Some of the other artificial sweeteners have an aftertaste or can cause [gastrointestinal] problems, and stevia doesn’t seem to cause any of those issues.”

A member of the sunflower family, the genus stevia refers to a few hundred shrubby herbs native to tropical and subtropical climates. The sweet-tasting leaves have been used for millennia by indigenous cultures in South America; it took until the 1970s to find its way to Asian and European palates. Hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, stevia is the favored sugar substitute in Japan and is used as a food additive across the globe.

It was restricted in the U.S. until 2008 but has steadily gained a presence in mainstream grocery aisles, in a powder or under the brand name Truvia, a refined form of stevia called rebiana. Since Truvia’s launch in 2008, it’s become the second most popular sugarless sweetener in the country. (There is controversy in natural foods community over whether Truvia’s inclusion of sugar alcohols and its chemical extraction process can still be considered “natural.”)

Because it has little to no effect on blood glucose levels, stevia in its commercial forms is safe for patients with diabetes. It has been shown to improve certain types of pancreatic cells and possibly stimulate insulin production, according to a 2003 study published in the medical journal Metabolism. Weeks recommends stevia to her clients who are managing diabetes or looking to lose weight, keeping green packets of Truvia in her office to pass out as samples.

“It’s different than what they’re used to, but it can get people off sugared tea,” says the 15-year healthcare veteran. “Some want to stick with the artificial stuff, but many of them have switched over.”

Since both tobacco and stevia favor similar conditions, Southeastern tobacco farmers may have a lucrative replacement for their original crop, for which demand has waned.

Once rare, stevia is finding its way into Savannah’s food culture: Café Florie’s iced citrus green tea made with honey and stevia was hailed in the New York Times last week, and Lovin’ Spoons frozen yogurt has recently adopted its own signature formula that blends stevia and sugar to reduce calories.

The local froyo company announced a partnership with Atlanta-based Freshens in June, the largest frozen yogurt and smoothie supplier in the country. Lovin’ Spoons CEO Diane Kahn wanted to develop a proprietary formula that was lower in calories and better tasting than her competitors’ as she prepares to take her brand to a national level. The result is 35 new flavors, all based in the stevia blend.

“By reducing calories and sugars in the lineup, it appeals to more health-conscious consumers,” says Kahn. “At the same time, we have maintained the wonderful taste and quality our fans are accustomed to.”

Freshens recreated its own recipe last year to incorporate stevia, a move that Vice President of Operations Joe Sardina calls “prescient.”

“People don’t want artificial anything anymore,” proclaims Sardina.

But don’t try and dump in as much sugar as you’re used to: It only takes a teaspoon of powdered or liquid stevia to equal a cup of granulated sugar.

When using a baking blend from the grocery store, use half as much as the recipe calls for.

The key with stevia, Sardin cautions, “is to get the balance right. Too much is way too much.”