It seems like every time I try to get this blog started again, something comes up. But I remain undaunted. As long as there are healthy, sugar-free products, cooking advice, and recipes to share, I will keep coming back. As I mentioned in a previous post, stevia-sweetened products are becoming more common, although they are still the minority in comparison with those laden with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame. And today, I'm sharing another soda brand. This one is Virgil's.

Virgil's is know primarily for their “gourmet” root beer, made from all natural ingredients, but they make a few other soda flavors as well. And they eventually began offering diet versions of their sodas sweetened with stevia. One thing that's unmistakable about Virgil's is the packaging. Instead six pack cans, Virgil's comes in packs of four 12 oz. bottles, which reminded me of the old IBC root beer bottles my mom would occasionally buy when I was growing up. That definitely earned them some nostalgia points.

Aesthetic appeal aside, Virgil's stevia-sweetened sodas come in five flavors: root beer, real cola, cream soda, orange cream soda, and black cherry cream soda. My personal favorite is the real cola. It has a spicy, old-fashioned cola taste that I find particularly appealing, and it's caffeine free. If you like your pop really sweet, then this is the brand for you. Initially, I found a few of the flavors (cream soda and black cherry cream soda) to be too sweet, although once I acclimated to the strong sweet flavor, I enjoyed them a bit more.

Overall, Virgil's makes an enjoyable range of diet pop, especially if you love old-fashioned style sodas but don't want the added calories. And if you like it, Virgil's has a new product called Dr. Better that is also available as a zero-calorie stevia-sweetened diet beverage (I haven't tried it yet, so I have not included it as part of this review).

While stevia is not new to the market, finding it in products on the shelf of your grocery store is still uncommon, but the situation is improving. For instance, like many people, when my husband and I wanted a soft drink, we would reach for regular commercial sodas (even then, we avoided artificial sweeteners like aspartame and Splenda). But we wanted to cut back on the sugar or, in this case, the high-fructose corn syrup. However, for a long time we could not find a brand of pop that was sweetened with stevia because, for years, it did not exist. We would occasionally take turns performing searches and come up empty until one day hubby sent me link to a product he just ordered called Zevia.

I'll admit it. When he first ordered it, I had a few concerns. After all, the price was a bit steep compared to mainstream soft drinks. I was also worried that it would taste like diet soda. I never liked diet pop and was worried that we would be stuck with several cans of a beverage we didn't like. But my concerns about the taste were unfounded. When I tried Zevia, I loved it.

As mentioned before, it is sweetened with stevia as well as a small amount of the natural sweetener Erythritol and contains no genetically modified ingredients. When we first tried it, Zevia only came in the three original flavors: Cola, Orange, and Lemon Lime Twist. Now you can choose from 15. We've tried most of them, but the following are my favorites (as well as a few of Hubby's):

Zevia Cola: This is actually one of my husband's favorite flavors. It is quite good but is not as strong as the mainstream colas (which probably means it's not as acidic).

Zevia Ginger Root Beer: The root beer is one of my all-time favorites. I have always been a root beer lover, and this one is every bit as good as the others. The root beer flavor is very strong in this, just the way I like it.

Zevia Ginger Ale: Here is another one my husband favors, as ginger ale was the soft drink he used to order when we went out (before we gave up sugar). I would prefer more of a ginger taste to it, but it's still a wonderful alternative to mainstream ginger ale brands.

Zevia Grape: Grape soda isn't for everybody, but I've always enjoyed it. Zevia's grape soda actually has a lighter grape flavor that I enjoy more than other brands. It's not quite as overpowering, so if you're not sure about grape soda, give this one a try. You might like it.

Zevia Cream Soda: Cream soda is another pop flavor I've liked for as long as I can remember, and this one is no exception. The vanilla flavor is very strong, so if you love vanilla, you should certainly try this one.

Dr. Zevia: I don't think I need to point out which mainstream beverage this is meant to taste like, but I will say it is a wonderful alternative. This one is a favorite in our household. Cherry is the prominent flavor here, but you'll still notice the spices and fizziness.

Zevia Strawberry: This is a new one, but its light refreshing flavor quickly made it a favorite here. If you like smooth-tasting strawberry-flavored beverages, add this one to your list.

So if you are a pop drinker, give Zevia a chance. With its extensive flavor offerings, they are bound to have something you like. And if you don't drink soda, check out Zevia's recipe page. It can be used for cooking as well.

I can't believe it has been four and a half months since the last time I posted here.

An unfortunate reality for me—whenever I get busy with work, my blogs suffer. It was something I thought I could manage better this year. However, things got a bit overwhelming with work and some family and personal health problems. Hence, I fell off the wagon for a bit. But I've truly missed writing content for this blog, especially since I have some exciting sugar-free products and recipes to share, so I'm looking to start up again. I'm trying a new look for the site, which I hope you like. I'm a purple girl at heart, so it should be no surprise that my new them would be reflect that.

The next few reviews are products where I'd almost attach a bit of an asterisk because they are soft drinks (pop or soda, depending on where you live). And I don't consider pop to be a healthy beverage. That said, we all deserve a treat every now and then, and when we do treat ourselves, it's great to be able to do so without doing significant damage to our health. As I've said before, eating healthy doesn't mean giving up all of the foods that you love. So I'll be introducing my favorite sodas that can be enjoyed on their own or mixed with other drinks. I meant to post these during the summer, and although it's gotten a bit chilly, these are still great sodas.

I've also tried a few new stevia brands that I'm really excited about, so I'll be posting reviews for them as well. So it's great to be back, and if you're new here, welcome aboard.
While Stevita Liquid Stevia is great in drinks and can even be used for some cooking and Stevita Spoonable Stevia meets my baking needs, what do I do when I go out? I could put a bottle of liquid stevia in my purse, but bottles have the tendency to leak. So I'd rather not carry one with me, and my husband would not risk toting it in his pocket for the same reason. 

So what's the solution? 

Packets, of course.

As I mentioned before, the spoonable stevia is available in packets, but it's not sold locally. And I prefer  having these accessible, as we go through our stevia packets rather quickly. So when I need stevia in packets, I reach for Stevia Extract In The Raw

So What Is Stevia Extract In The Raw? 
Stevia Extract in the Raw is a natural sweetener that consists of stevia extract and (bulking agent) dextrose, which is a carbohydrate derived from corn. You'll probably recognize the In The Raw brand that produced the less processed sugar, Sugar In The Raw, and more recently introduced Agave In The Raw (I'll talk more about agave in later articles).

Of the stevia brands I've tried and liked, this one is by far the mildest. It is still sweeter than sugar but is not as strong and lacks the aftertaste that stevia is known to have. While I haven't been pleased with the results when I tried cooking with it, Stevia Extract In The Raw still works great on breakfast cereal, and the portable packets make it easy to take with me when I'm on the go. (Sadly, restaurants here do not offer stevia as a sweetener option.)

Also, its milder flavor has allowed me to pass it along to friends and family with better results than the stronger brands. But keep in mind that if you do try to cook with it, the conversion rate does not match that of other brands. Stevia In The Raw has its own conversion table.

So if you're looking for a milder stevia, this is it.

While I'd like to say that there is a tried and
true method for cooking with stevia, that's just not the case.  It will take some trial and error to see what brands work for you, but once you find that out, it's fairly simple. The main thing you need to keep in mind is that while stevia is certainly sweet, it does not behave like sugar when you cook it. Unlike sugar, it does not brown or caramelize nor does it add volume or texture. So achieving soft, chewy baked goods may require a bit of practice. 

Another important thing to remember is that stevia is many times sweeter than sugar. Even if you use stevia blends, which aren't as strong, you're recipes will be too sweet if you try to make a direct substitution. And I've tried playing the guessing game via trial and error for this as well, at times with less satisfying results. You can avoid that game by using a
conversion chart so that when you substitute stevia for sugar, you'll be using a quantity that doesn't overwhelm your recipe.

Regardless of what you are cooking, always use a high-quality stevia product. Stevia blends work best for most cooking since they are not as strong, so if you accidentally add a little to much, your recipe will not be ruined. The following are some further tips you may find helpful:

If you're just starting to cook with stevia, beverages are a great place to begin. Just a few drops of liquid stevia can sweeten drinks that would otherwise be laden with sugar. This includes smoothies, cider, coffee-based drinks, and tart juices.

Cookies: Since cookies are my husband's favorite dessert, this is where I started baking with stevia. Crispy cookies like short bread tend to turn out best, so if possible, try making those first. For softer ones, make sure you are adding plenty of moist ingredients and do not overbake them. Also, consider making thick bar/pan cookies since they tend to be chewier.

Your breads will rise without sugar as a catalyst (contrary to popular opinion). They can indeed rise with just flour feeding the yeast, but it will take longer.

Quick breads: Quick breads sweetened with stevia don't rise as well as those made with sugar, so you'll need to make adjustments in the amounts of baking powder or baking soda you are using.

In stove top cooking, the switch came fairly easily. I've made some delicious meals by using a good conversion table to make the appropriate substitution. In the coming weeks, I'll post some of my favorite stevia recipes amongst the product reviews. Enjoy sugar-free cooking!

As I was putting together notes on cooking with stevia, I realized it would be better to review the stevia I use most for cooking first so I can refer back to this product and review rather than explain certain points twice. And while Stevita's liquid stevia is a perfect addition to drinks, their spoonable stevia is the product I use for cooking and baking.

About Stevia Blends or Spoonable Stevia

Stevia blends make the herb's strong sweet flavor a bit more accessible by combining it with a filler to create a powder. This is stevia's most versatile form since it is easy to measure for recipes and can be spooned over cereal and fruit or into beverages. The fillers used add ease of use and minimal caloric impact, like maltodextrin or erythritol. Stevita Spoonable Stevia, for example, uses stevia extract with at least 95 percent pure glycosides (extremely sweet ingredients from the herb's leaves) and erythritol (a naturally produced filler found in vegetables, fruits, and grains).

Stevia blends can come in bulk form or in packets. The packets generally contain the same ingredients but come in convenient premeasured servings that are quite portable, so they can be carried on the go.

Stevita Spoonable Stevia
I've tried a few different stevia blends, but Stevita's has been, by far, the easiest to use for cooking without diluting the sweetness of the herb too much. Keep in mind, Stevita's spoonable blend is strong, but not as bitter as some other brands. You can purchase Stevita Spoonable Stevia in boxes of premeasured packets or in bulk jars. While the packets are convenient if you want to take them with you (keeping a box of packets in the car, perhaps), but for cooking at home, the 16 oz bulk jars are priceless because you can spoon out exactly the quantity you need. I started out using packets, but after having to count out fifty packets for a large cookie recipe I was preparing, I realized that the bulk jars are indispensable in the kitchen.

So you've been introduced to stevia and the reasons I use it. And while I promised (and will deliver) an article on cooking with stevia, you should get acquainted with stevia in its various forms, and reviewing some of my favorite products seemed to be the best way to do that. Liquid stevia products are fairly versatile and a good place to start. You can use them for sweetening coffees and teas, and those of you who don't like drinking water can make the experience more palatable with a flavored liquid stevia. I've tried a number of different liquid stevia products and have found some have a strong, intrusive bitter aftertaste while others are watered it down too much. Stevita Liquid Extract is by far my favorite.

Stevia in Liquid Form
There are two types of liquid stevia extracts. One is dark liquid stevia, a concentrated syrup made from dried leaves. The other is clear liquid stevia, made from powdered steviosides dissolved in water, glycerin, or alcohol. Stevita's liquid stevia consist of stevia leaves, water, and grapefruit seed extract as a preservative, and of course, the flavored varieties each have their natural flavors.

Stevita Liquid Stevia
I can't think of a tastier way to introduce people to stevia, because not only can you enjoy its sweet flavor but there are an array of flavors to choose from as well. For drinks that are sufficiently flavored (like a number of herbal teas), it's probably best to use the plain clear liquid, but for foods and drinks that need some additional flavor, one of the flavored stevias could be just the thing to bring them to life. I've found the vanilla to be most versatile. But I've also tried strawberry, mango, cognac, peach, toffee, and orange and enjoyed them all (although vanilla, strawberry, and mango are the favorites here). They can be added to tea, coffee, water, and smoothies just to name a few. I've also used it when making oatmeal (add it while the oats are still cooking so they will absorb the flavor).

As a final note, I've heard complaints about stevia having a strong bitter aftertaste, and it will if you overuse it. Remember that stevia is more than 200 times sweeter than sugar, so a few drops can go a long way. If you're new to stevia, you'll need to experiment to see how much works best for you.

So you know that sugar can have devastating effects on your health, and you've been warned that sugar's artificial alternatives, like aspartame and sucralose, are even more toxic. But what if you want something to sweeten your tea or put on your breakfast cereal? And maybe you still want to bake sweet treats for your family every now and then. After all, you don't need to give up all of the foods you love to live a healthy lifestyle. You just need to adapt to alternatives. And if you haven't tried it already, consider using my favorite sugar alternative—stevia.

What Is Stevia?
Stevia is a natural calorie-free sugar alternative extracted from the herb Stevia rubaudiana, which is native to South America and has been used as a sweetener by the natives for more than 1,500 years. While stevia was originally grown in Paraguay and Southern Brazil, today people grow it worldwide. As a product, it is currently available in the following forms: leaves, liquid extracts, powdered extracts, and stevia blends.

Is Stevia Safe?
While artificial sweeteners are made with chemicals that are harmful to the human body, stevia is a natural sweetener made from an herb and is safe for consumption. If the fact that the natives of Paraguay were using it for more than 1,500 years isn't proof enough that stevia is safe, then perhaps the fact that it has been used in Japan since the early 1970s would help.

You may have heard of the so-called side effects of stevia by the “experts” (the same ones who deemed aspartame and sucralose safe) like toxicity, contraceptive effects, and causing birth defects. Sweet Misery discussed the reasons aspartame was approved, and if the powers that be stand to benefit as chemical sweeteners thrive, then stevia needed to be blacklisted. In Japan, the companies trying to approve the product were not funding the research, so more elaborate tests were done. And stevia has been considered safe there for decades, without the alleged side effects mentioned in the U.S.

For that reason, stevia-based products have not been approved until recently here.

Benefits of Stevia
So yes, rest assured, stevia is safe. But it's much more than that. Stevia is also:
  • A natural sweetener with a 1,500-year track record
  • A calorie-free alternative to sugar without the chemical toxins in artificial sweeteners
  • A flavor enhancer that is extremely sweet (250 times sweeter than sugar
It has also been used for centuries for its healing properties as a remedy for diabetes and gum disease. It has been associated with the following:
  • Promoting healthy weight
  • Managing blood sugar levels
  • Regulating blood pressure

Can You Cook with Stevia?
Once again, the simple answer is yes. While stevia does not behave the way sugar does when heated, with some adaptations to recipes you can cook with it. It does not caramelize like sugar does. But unlike aspartame, it also does not break down at room temperatures. It is stable up to around 392 degrees Fahrenheit, so it works well in most recipes.

I have used stevia in several recipes, and more often than not, I've been happy with the results. So expect a post on cooking with it in the near future.

For more about stevia and how it's been blacklisted by the FDA, I highly recommend this article by Dr. Mercola. For a more thorough explanation, download his free report. Since he originally wrote it, some stevia-based sweeteners have been approved by the FDA (stevia-based, mind you, not stevia itself), but the rest is entirely accurate.

For all you mothers reading this, I'd like to wish you a happy Mother's Day. If you're reading this blog, then you're interested in embracing a healthier lifestyle for your family. Good for you! Anyway, I'm almost to the point where I'll be back to my former blogging schedule, and I'm excited about the future articles on my to-do list. But for now, here are this weekend's articles:

Food Blogging
How Food Blogging Can Change Your Health: I've never linked to an article about blogging on this site before, but this makes sense, especially for a food blog. Food blogging, according to this article, adds accountability. This depends on the blog, of course. I don't share my meals, but I'm reading more health food articles so I can write more informed reviews, leaving me more aware of nutrition. I'm also more conscious of the foods I buy and review. I'd lose some credibility if I posted a review for a sugary cereal and a beverage that contained artificial sweeteners. In any event, read this article, and if you haven't already, start a food blog and then drop by and share the link. I'd be happy to check it out.

Making Healthier Fast Food Choices: This is an article I wish I had written, since the topic has been on my mind lately. And it's not just about fast food. It also applies to sit-down restaurants and parties. When spending time with friends and family, it can be hard not to give in to peer pressure when your company has no interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Trust me. I understand the awkwardness of being the only vegetarian at a party and trying to be discreet about turning down food. And this situation is similar. 

Diced and Delicious Fruit Salad: As temperatures heat up and you want a simple and refreshing treat, make a fruit salad. Here is just one easy recipe that you and your family can enjoy.

Have happy, healthy weekend!

With aspartame, I first discovered its potential problems from someone else's experience (my mother's and later my mother-in-law's), but for sucralose (known by the popular brand name Splenda), it was my own reaction that caused my doubts. So what happened?

Years ago, when my husband and I still consumed sugary pop, we were out shopping one day and stopped at a vending machine to get a can of soda. It must have been nearly empty because instead of getting our selection, we ended up with a diet drink (not mentioning any names). After checking and assuring ourselves that it contained no aspartame, we opened the can and began to enjoy. We hadn't finished the can before I had a throbbing headache. It may not seem like a big deal, but until then, I hadn't experienced any food sensitivities before.

So What Is Sucralose?
You're probably familiar with the brand Splenda, since you'll find the packets available at restaurants and in popular commercial products. You may have even tried it on occasion. But do you know what sucralose really is? It's derived from sucrose (table sugar), but it has been chemically modified so that it has no calories. That doesn't sound too bad, does it? After all, it's “made from sugar.”

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Is Sucralose Safe?
Like aspartame, it was discovered by accident, while attempting to create an insecticide. It is essentially chlorinated sugar. Yes, chlorine, the chemical used to disinfect swimming pools and bleach your clothes. Sucralose falls into the same category of chlorinated hydrocarbons [chlorocarbons] as DDT, Phosgene gas, Chlorodane, Lindane, Dioxin, and PCBs. The production of sucralose also requires a barrage of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals to interact with one another in the production process, including such “old favorites” as:

1. Acetone
2. Acetic acid
3. Acetyl alcohol
4. Acetic anhydride
5. Ammonium chloride
6. Benzene
7. Chlorinated sulfates
8. Ethyl alcohol
9. Isobutyl ketones
10. Formaldehyde
11. Hydrogen chloride
12. Lithium chloride
13. Methanol
14. Sodium methoxide
15. Sulfuryl chloride
16. Trityl chloride
17. Toluene
18. Thionyl chloride

If these chemicals were sweet, would you put some in your tea?

Also like aspartame, the FDA approval of sucralose was once again based on studies where information was altered or omitted. Instead of mentioning the devastating heath issues sucralose caused in the test subjects, the reports conveniently focused on the problems it didn't cause. A few of these problems include shrinkage of the thymus gland (vital to the immune system) and enlargement of the liver and kidneys. And of the more than one hundred pre-approval studies conducted, only two were human studies. A number of the details have been spelled out in an article posted earlier this year. 

Also, keep in mind the high number of side effects associated with sucralose. Some common ones include the following:

• Flushing or redness of the skin
• Rash, blisters, or welts
• Itching
• Swelling
• Nausea or stomach cramps
• Acne or acne-like rash
• Anxiety
• Panic attacks
• Headache
• Pain (body, chest)
• Bloated abdomen
• Diarrhea
• Depression
• Seizures
• Tremors

Still think Splenda is safe?

For more information about Splenda, check out Dr. Joseph Mercola's website, where he posted an excerpt from Dr. Janet Star Hull's newsletter as well as his own article on the dangers of sucralose.