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It’s an herb. It’s much sweeter than sugar. It’s almost calorie-free. It does not cause the after-eating spike in blood sugar that aggravates diabetes.

Wait. There’s more.

It’s  actually good for you.

It reduces blood sugar and blood pressure, and boosts immune function. It’s safer than other artificial sweeteners.

And you can  grow it yourself. (see below)

It’s stevia (Stevia rebaudiana).

Stevia had to go through a long U.S. regulatory review, but you can find it now in products.

I have a gardener’s interest in herbs and  natural healing. As with many herbs, Americans are late to the game in using stevia. It is actually native to Paraguay and Brazil. There, the Guarani Indians called it kaa-he-e, meaning sweet herb, or honey leaf.

stevia-packsPart of the delay in getting approval in the U.S. to use stevia as a food additive was a complaint to FDA that tried to link it to cancer and genetic mutations. Those charges turned out to be  false, and some suspect that the whole thing was a plot (conspiracy theorists enter here) to protect the lucrative, existing artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘N Low (saccharine), NutraSweet (aspartame) and Sunette (acesulfame K).

It was banned until 1994, though you could buy it as a “supplement” in health food stores.

Last year, the FDA  ruling was reversed and 2 stevia sweeteners have been approved as food additives (SweetLeaf and Truvia).

Beyond using it as a sweetener, studies show that it has other natural healing effects. According to Mother Earth News:

1. Researchers in Taiwan gave 106 people with high blood pressure, ages 28 to 75, either a placebo or stevia extract (250 milligrams three times a day). After three months, blood pressure in the stevia group dropped significantly, with no side effects.

2. Other Taiwan scientists gave 168 adults with high blood pressure, average age 52, either a placebo or stevioside (500 milligrams three times a day). After one week, the stevia group showed lower blood pressure, and it remained low for the two years the study lasted.

3. Danish researchers gave a dozen type-2 diabetics a test meal plus a placebo or stevioside (1 gram). Thirty minutes later, the stevioside group had significantly lower blood sugar. The researchers said stevia may be “advantageous in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.”

4.  Indian researchers have discovered that stevia is rich in antioxidants, which means that it should help prevent the nation’s three top killers: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Indeed, a Chinese animal study shows that a compound in stevia, isosteviol, helps prevent brain damage from stroke.

5. An Indian animal study shows that stevia boosts immune function, particularly the ability of white blood cells to devour invading germs.

Stevia-seedlingsAmerican gardeners can grow stevia. Down South it would be treated as perennial that would need to be replaced every few years, and in other parts of the country it’s treated as an annual that would be planted in the spring after the last frost as with many vegetables and flowers.

There are amazingly 280 species of stevia that grow throughout North and South America. But only Stevia rebaudiana, is sweet.

Most people buy plants because he seeds are difficult to germinate for a home gardener.  They look similar to mints. Space them a foot apart, mulch, water once or twice a week and treat them as you would most of your vegetables. It can also be gown in containers.

The plant grows to 3 feet. You harvest the leaves as flowering begins around in midsummer to late fall when the sweetness peaks.  The leaves right off the plant are 15 times sweeter than table sugar. You can also dry and powder the one inch leaves and use them as you would use sugar.

A muffin and cookie recipe using stevia

Stevia seeds

Stevia Rebaudiana : Natures Sweet Secret

The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World’s Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs

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My oldest son took my unused beer brewing kit from the basement a few years ago and has been doing some good brews. (He did have one explode a few months ago in his girlfriend’s new townhouse closet!)

I was reading an article online about brewing your own soda. I’m actually not a soda fan any more – empty calories, acid burn, tooth decay and all that – but home-brewed soda sounds appealing. Homemade soda may not be a health tonic, but ginger, anise, hops, licorice root and the yeast found in natural sodas (a great source of B-complex vitamins) and the lower sugar content aren’t bad things. (Most commercial soda has about 7 to 9 teaspoons of sugar per 12 ounces and few home brewers use that much.) Just as beer brewers are experimenting with fruits (Hurray for the Belgians!), soda brewers are bottling up Cherry Ginger, Peach Fizz, Maple Rhubarb, Mulberry Root Beer and others.

People have been brewing their own beverages from local plants for generations. Think of those roots that give “root” beer and “ginger” ale their names. Home-brewers tend to use the same soda ingredients as the old-fashioned recipes, so the sodas usually don’t have the artificial feel of modern soft drinks.

And there has been a steady increase in soda microbrews (like losttrailsoda.com and even the ice cream folks at emackandbolios.com).

The only dangerous old-fashioned brew I found online is sassafras. I recall loving that as a kid and my brewmeister son still has a sassafras soda bottle that he saved from his cowboy days. But in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned sassafras from food products because of the suspected carcinogenic properties of safrole. That is contained in in small amounts in sassafras, basil, nutmeg and black pepper. Those famous lab rats given large doses of safrole developed tumors, so the FDA restricts the sale of sassafras. Commercial root beer extract is now made with imitation sassafras (sassafras root extract with the safrole removed).

Plenty of websites offer home brewing kits and supplies

Here’s a recipe that sounds good to me.

Honey Ginger Ale

1 gallon water
1 cup honey
2 lemons
1 cup loosely packed hops flowers (optional)
2 pieces of ginger, thumb-sized
1/2 teaspoon ale or champagne yeast

Combine water, honey and hops in a stockpot. Add the juice from the two lemons and bring to a boil. Grate ginger and add to the pot. Simmer for 30 minutes. Allow to cool and then add the yeast. Let the soda stand at room temperature for 24 hours, then use a funnel and strainer to pour the soda into bottles. Leave 1 to 2 inches of
empty space at the top of the bottle and attach the bottle caps. Write the date on the bottles and store them in a warm, draftfree place, ideally at room temperature, for an additional 24 hours. Then refrigerate. For best results, leave the bottles in the refrigerator an additional day or two before drinking. Makes 1 gallon.

For more, see  http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2004-12-01/Brew-Soda-at-Home.aspx

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