Plants that taste sweet can be particularly useful for cooking certain savory meals, making liquors and garnishing desserts. They can also act as substitutes for sugar. With the exception of a few species of stevia, so-called sweet herbs provide only a subtle sweetness that’s unlikely to satisfy your sugar cravings. However, for diabetics who can’t consume sugary foods or beverages, certain herbs can provide some sweetness without significantly impacting blood sugar and insulin levels.
Stevia is a genus of perennial herb native to South America, particularly Paraguay. The genus includes many species, some of which are very sweet tasting. For example, Stevia rebaudiana is the species most often used as a sugar substitute. It is between 100 and 300 times sweeter than table sugar, which is made of sucrose. Stevia is also calorie-free and has virtually no impact on blood glucose levels. According to a 2010 review article published in the “International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition,” stevia has properties superior to other sweeteners and is particularly beneficial for diabetics and children. Rebaudioside A and stevioside -- purified extracts from whole leaf Stevia rebaudiana -- are classified as "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS for short, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Sweet basil -- also referred to as common basil -- is named due to its mild sweetness. According to the University of Minnesota at Duluth, basil leaves have a sweet, warm flavor and an aromatic odor. Basil leaves are commonly added to tomato sauces, salads and pesto spreads. They are also added to vinegars and oils to offset their acidity or bitterness. However, not all basil is mildly sweet. For example, lemon basil has a more citrus flavor and camphor basil has more of a woody or camphor-like taste and scent.
Sweet cicely -- also called British myrrh -- is a very aromatic herb that’s native to Great Britain. It’s large leaves are used in salads and to make medicinal extracts and sweet liquors. Like its name suggests, this herb is relatively sweet and tastes similar to licorice or anise. According to the late Margaret Grieve, herbalist and culinary expert, the leaves of sweet cicely taste "as if sugar had been sprinkled over them."
Tarragon is a perennial herb known for its aromatic leaves. Aside from its strong fragrance, tarragon leaves have also been described as distinctively sweet. The herb, which can be used fresh or dried, is commonly added to vegetables, salads, chicken, seafood and eggs. Tarragon is also used to make vinegar. Its mildly sweet taste and strong aroma offset the sourness of the acetic acid. Margaret Grieve noted that there are two types of culinary tarragon. The Russian type may be a little sweeter, because it doesn't have the "peculiar tartness of the French variety."
- International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition: Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a Bio-Sweetener: A Review
- SweetLeaf.com: Stevia: Frequently Asked Questions
- University of Minnesota Duluth: Herbs, Spices and Seasonings: Basil
- University of Vermont Extension: Department of Plant and Soil Science: The Many Uses of Basil
- Botanical.com: Cicely, Sweet
- Botanical.com: Tarragon
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: GRAS Notice Inventory: Stevia
Johnathon Andrew obtained his M.Sc. from the University of British Columbia in 2003 and then went on to complete his Medical Degree at Queen's University in Kingston. He has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals such as the "Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics" and the "Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences."