Saving Stevia/FOS

I've written in the past -- and in several of my books -- about stevia/FOS blend. But for those of you who have missed it, here's the deal:

"Stevia" is short for stevia rebaudiana, a South American shrub with remarkably sweet leaves. (Indeed, the native name for the plant translates as "sweet leaf.") The sweet substance is extracted from the leaves to make a white powder. This is the stevia you find in health food stores, and it's a naturally occurring non-nutritive (that is, non-caloric) sweetener.

The stuff is ridiculously sweet. Those of you who are middle-aged like me will remember the old, teeny saccharine tablets -- one tablet about twice the size of a pinhead was the equivalent of a teaspoon or two of sugar in sweetness. Stevia is about that sweet. This makes stevia a little hard to use, since the quantities needed are so small.

There is another natural sweetener called fructooligosaccharide, usually just called FOS; it's also called inulin. FOS is a carbohydrate, but it's too big a molecule for the human gut to digest or absorb. Think of it as a sweet form of fiber. FOS has a nice, clean sweet flavor, but it's about half as sweet as sugar. You can't just use twice as much, though, for two reasons: One, the stuff is hideously expensive. And two, eating a massive dose of fiber has, er, consequences, you know?

FOS has another interesting property: You can't digest or absorb it, but the good bacteria in your gut can. So eating FOS will increase your healthy intestinal flora.

Some genius had the idea of combining the too-sweet stevia powder with the not-sweet-enough FOS, to make an all-natural sweetener that's easier to use than straight stevia. It's one of the sweeteners I keep on hand. I find it works better for some things than others -- I particularly like it for sweetening yogurt; it tastes good, and makes all those friendly bacteria more likely to flourish inside me.

Okay, all of this I've explained before. There's one new piece of info, though:

I've learned that stevia/FOS blend -- I buy a brand called Stevia Plus, from the Sweet Leaf company -- does not have an unlimited shelf life. It doesn't go bad. But it cakes. Oh, boy, does it cake! It turns into a substance not much different from the Indiana limestone in my yard. And it stubbornly refuses to become un-caked. I've tried breaking it up. Hah! I've tried putting it through the blender with water, to make a liquid sweetener. No dice. I ran the blender for a good five minutes, and still had big chunks of white stuff.

Since the stuff is not cheap, this was maddening. But I've finally come up with a way to use up caked stevia/FOS blend: I pour apple cider vinegar into the shaker jar.

This does not magically dissolve all the stevia/FOS. But over the space of a few days, I end up with sweetened cider vinegar. What good is that, you ask? I'm finding lots of uses for the stuff.

First of all, I'm drinking a lot of "Cider-Ade" -- think lemonade, only apple-flavored. I put a shot of the sweetened vinegar in a big glass, add ice and water, and I have a delicious, refreshing beverage with all the healthful properties of apple cider vinegar.

But I find myself reaching for the sweetened vinegar more and more -- it's wonderful in salad dressings. How many dressings call for sugar or honey, and also require vinegar? I just use the sweetened vinegar. I'm going to try it in marinades, too.

I've refilled my bottle with the caked stevia-FOS with vinegar at least a half a dozen times, and there's still a big chunk of the stuff in the bottom, so I'll be using it for quite a while. Be aware that since the stevia keeps slowly dissolving, the end of each batch will be sweeter than the beginning. If you want it tangier, just add a little unsweetened vinegar, too.

This doesn't keep me from having to buy a new bottle of stevia/FOS for general sweetening. But it does keep me from tossing several dollars worth of the stuff in the trash, and gives me a useful new seasoning in the kitchen, to boot.

I knew that if I had caked stevia/FOS on hand, someone else did, too. Hope this helps.

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