A sweetener that’s 300 times sweeter than sugar, calorie-free and comes from a plant—what could be better, right? That’s what a lot of health experts feel about this sugar alternative.

The more we learn about sugar, the more we know it’s pretty bad stuff and pretty addictive. But everyone likes a sweetened beverage from time to time or a dessert. Used in moderation, stevia can be a great replacement for sugar.

Native to South America, the stevia plant has been used by the Guaraní peoples in Paraguay and Brazil as a sweetener for hundreds of years. You are only seeing it appear in foods now in the US because it’s just recently been approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

It can be daunting to use a new sweetener, especially when it comes in a variety of forms. We asked Kimberly Lord Stewart, Director of Content Development for Today’s Practitioner and author of Eating Between the Lines (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), for advice on using this sweet sugar replacement.

NVL: How can stevia be used in beverages?

Kimberly Lord Stewart: I like liquid stevia for cold beverages. It especially works well in no-sugar lemonades, smoothies, fruit-juice mocktails and cocktails. Stevia’s flavor profile is a perfect fit with citrus, red berries and tropical flavors like hibiscus and pineapple. In hot beverages, try vanilla-flavored stevia, as it masks some of the bitter licorice taste.

NVL: Can stevia be used for baking?

KLS: For baking it’s important to note that stevia is not a one-for-one substitution for sugar. Because it is so sweet, you will need less of it. It is stable to 400 degrees, so it will work in cooking and baking, but the recipe will require something to give it bulk. For every cup of sugar you take out, it must be replaced by ⅓ cup of another ingredient to give it structure. Experiment with plain and Greek yogurt, unsweetened applesauce or apple butter, mashed bananas, puréed prunes or dates, and egg whites. Remember that when you do this, some of the fruit concentrate substitutions may have a high glycemic index; so it may be counter to your goal of reducing carbohydrates that affect blood sugar spikes.

NVL: How should one shop for stevia?

KLS: Each stevia brand is unique; some are liquids and tinctures (with alcohol and some without) and others are crystallized powders. Some crystallized brands for baking are blended with sugars, fruit extracts and sugar alcohol bulking agents, such as erythritol and maltodextrin. Some of these additives are not sugar-free and they may be made from genetically modified ingredients. If you prefer to avoid sugar alcohols, GMOs and unwanted add-in ingredients, read the label and look for pure organic stevia.

Because stevia is so new to the marketplace, it may take some trial and error to discover the brands and forms you like and what you like to use it for. Always opt for certified organic, non-GMO and fair-trade stevia; that way you can be sure it was grown without chemicals and the farmers were given a living wage. At Natural Vitality, we use organic stevia in our products to ensure the best quality and to protect the planet.