As painful as it is to admit one’s basic-ness, I, like so many people around this time of year, succumb to the pressures of beach-bod brain. The weather is warmer and clothes are tighter, shorter, and just plain barely there. So, basically, that winter hibernation layer you allowed yourself to take on needs to be shed (like, ASAP).

Obviously there are plenty of ways to approach this, but the best and most effective ways of improving your eating habits and making more healthful choices—at least for me—involve solutions that don’t feel like a change; like you’re not really sacrificing anything at all. For example, something as simple as swapping sugar for a natural sweetener like stevia.

For the uninitiated, stevia is a sweetener extracted from leaves of the Stevia Rebaudiana plant (which, fun fact, is a member of the sunflower family). The plants are native to Paraguay and Brazil, though are now commonly found across Central and South America, and have been used both as a natural sweetener and for medical purposes for centuries. Apparently, the first person to have studied the plant, back in the 1500s, was a Spanish botanist named Petrus Jacobus Stevus for whom it would eventually be named. Long story short, here’s why you care: It contains zero carbs, zero calories, and is low-glycemic (a.k.a. it won’t raise your blood sugar levels). Basically, it checks all the boxes. So while you prep your pantry for a sugar purge, here are a couple key things to know about stevia.

A little goes a long way.

“The number one thing to keep top of mind with stevia is that when it is an isolated ingredient, stevia is 40-times sweeter than sugar, so it cannot be used as a 1:1 replacement. Being a high-intensity sweetener, only a small amount is needed to replicate the desired sweetness level that would normally be found with sugar,” explains Tara Bosch, founder of SmartSweets, a stevia-based gummy candy company. And actually, the International Journal of Biology found that in some cases, stevia extracts can be up to 300 times more potent than sugar.

Is that…licorice I taste?

The short answer: yes. Consumed in large amounts, or as a powdered form of the raw plant, stevia has a distinct licorice-y, slightly bitter aftertaste. “In recent years, technology has allowed companies to isolate the naturally sweet parts of whole leaf stevia, removing the unpleasant aftertaste. This process is what results in stevia extract,” notes Bosch. When manipulated and used correctly, stevia extract can not only imitate the sweet flavor of sugar but also the texture and consistency it lends to confections.

Just because it says it’s made with stevia on the label, doesn’t mean you don’t have to read the fine print.

Because having “made with stevia” on your product’s packaging has proven to be a smart and powerful marketing tool, Bosch warns that it’s important for consumers to read the fine print to make sure they’re not being misled about the contents. “It’s important for consumers to read the label of products that are marketed as being stevia-sweetened, as stevia is also paired with fillers—such as malto-dextrin and erythritol—that can take away from its integrity as a natural sweetener.” She advises consumers to look closely at where stevia ranks on the list of ingredients—the higher, a.k.a. closer to the beginning, the better. “Many sugar-free products claim to be stevia-sweetened, but actually have sugar alcohols, such as malitol or isomalt, as the primary sweetener.” It’s for this reason, her stevia-based brand, SmartSweets, has zero sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, or added sugars.

Bypass bad-for-you bulk with natural solutions.

“There are stevias on the market that are touted as ‘baking stevias,’ which contain fillers and bulking agents to allow it to function as a 1:1 sugar replacement,” cautions Bosch. “We like to opt for stevia as an isolated ingredient, then adding our own ‘bulking agents:’ applesauce, egg whites, or straight-up water are our favorites! A general rule of thumb is that for every cup of sugar you are replacing, you should add 1/3 cup of bulk.” For their part, SmartSweet uses a fiber-based bulking agent so that you can get your daily dose while eating candy—who could ever be mad at that?

Hacking your favorite guilty pleasure treats with stevia is easy.

For example, Bosch recommends that next time you want to hit up your local coffee spot for your favorite blended iced beverage, ask the barista to make it unsweetened and (obviously) skip the whipped cream. Add a pinch of stevia and—boom—your favorite summer sipper is now guilt-free (but doesn’t taste like it). And for a perfect, decadent but not indulgent dessert, she likes to layer plain Greek yogurt and fruit dusted with a little stevia to create a sugar-less fruit parfait.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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