For hundreds of years, people in Paraguay and Brazil have used a sweet leaf to sweeten bitter herbal teas including mate. For nearly 20 years, Japanese consumers by the millions have used extracts of the same plant as a safe, natural, non-caloric sweetener. The plant is stevia, formally known as Stevia rebaudiana.
Stevia is a fairly unassuming perennial shrub of the aster family (Asteraceae), native to the northern regions of South America. It has now been grown commercially in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Central America, the United States, Israel, Thailand and China. The leaves contain several chemicals called glycosides, which taste sweet, but do not provide calories. The major glycoside is called stevioside, and is one of the major sweeteners in use in Japan and Korea. Stevia and its extracts have captured over 40% of the Japanese market. Major multinational food companies like Coca Cola and Beatrice foods, convinced of its safety, use stevia extracts to sweeten foods for sale in Japan, Brazil, and other countries where it is approved.
Europeans first learned of stevia when the Spanish Conquistadors of the Sixteenth Century sent word to Spain that the natives of South America had used the plant to sweeten herbal tea since "ancient times". The saga of American interest in stevia began around the turn of the Twentieth Century when researchers in Brazil started hearing about "a plant with leaves so sweet that a part of one would sweeten a whole gourd full of mate." The plant had been described in 1899 by Dr. M. S. Bertoni. In 1921 the American Trade Commissioner to Paraguay commented in a letter "Although known to science for thirty years and used by the Indians for a much longer period nothing has been done commercially with the plant. This has been due to a lack of interest on the part of capital and to the difficulty of cultivation."
Dr. Bertoni wrote some of the earliest articles on the plant in 1905 and 1918. In the latter article he notes: "The principal importance of Ka he'e (stevia) is due to the possibility of substituting it for saccharine. It presents these great advantages over saccharine:
1. It is not toxic but, on the contrary, it is healthful, as shown by long experience and according to the studies of Dr. Rebaudi.
2. It is a sweetening agent of great power.
3. It can be employed directly in its natural state, (pulverized leaves).
4. It is much cheaper than saccharine."
Unfortunately, this last point may have been the undoing of stevia. Noncaloric sweeteners are a big business in the U.S., as are caloric sweeteners like sugar and the sugar-alcohols, sorbital, mannitol and xylitol. It is small wonder that the powerful sweetener interests here, do not want the natural, inexpensive, and non-patentable stevia approved in the U.S.
In the 1970s, the Japanese government approved the plant, and food manufacturers began using stevia extracts to sweeten everything from sweet soy sauce and pickles to diet Coke. Researchers found the extract interesting, resulting in dozens of well-designed studies of its safety, chemistry and stability for use in different food products. Various writers have praised the taste of the extracts, which has much less of the bitter aftertaste prevalent in most noncaloric sweeteners. In addition to Japan, other governments have approved stevia and stevioside, including those of Brazil, China and South Korea, among others. Unfortunately, the US was destined to be a different story. In Japan, there is much more scientific evidence of stevia's safety than for most foods and additives. There are several great stevia products on the market. Click here to check out some great items!