Stevia is a plant whose leaves contain compounds that are more than 200 times sweeter than table sugar but have no calories. I was introduced to this natural herbal sweetener in the late 1990s by a friend.

We were at a restaurant in Los Angeles, and before we ordered she asked the waiter to bring a few cut lemon pieces and a glass of water. She proceeded to squeeze the lemons into the water and asked me to taste. Of course, it was sour. She then added a few drops of stevia liquid. I could not believe how that small amount of herbal extract immediately turned the sourness into delicious lemonade.

I was so impressed that I was inspired to co-author The Stevia Cookbook with her. I researched the history of the plant and all the studies, while she worked on the recipes.

After reviewing multi-generational studies done with rodents where high dosages were found to be non-toxic – and realizing that some countries (including Japan) had been using stevia in their foods since the 1970s without ill effects – I was convinced that it was safe. However, the FDA claimed that it had concerns about stevia’s safety and would not allow it to be called a sweetener. Stevia had to be labeled as a “dietary supplement.”

Interestingly, the FDA’s attitude changed when Coke and Pepsi approached them and asked for permission to use stevia extract as a sweetener.

Stevia has been available in the U.S. since the mid to late 1990s, and it gradually became popular in alternative health circles. But it was not until Coke and Pepsi got the okay from the FDA in 2008 to begin adding it to their drinks that stevia was catapulted to a new status. You are soon likely to find it as a sweetener in a wide variety of foods, drinks, nutrition bars, and other products.

A number of companies sell stevia extracts but not all of them are of good quality. Some may have a bitter aftertaste. After searching for several years, I came across a clear liquid form of stevia that has become my favorite. I use 3 or 4 drops in my herbal tea every morning, and have been doing so for over a decade. You can add it to coffee, too, and kids love it in lemonade. It’s also available as a powder, and in lime-flavored packets that you can add to a pint of water for a delicious, calorie-free iced drink to enjoy on warm summer days.

[Ed. Note: For more on stevia – and dozens of other nutritional supplements – visit the natural healing website of Ray Sahelian, MD, at Stevia extract can be purchased directly from Dr. Sahelian by clicking here.