Also known as Sweet Leaf, stevia is an extremely sweet herb, indigenous to South America, particularly Paraguay. Originally, the leaf was dried and powdered, and then added to drinks as a sweetener. An extract, stevioside, is estimated at 50 to 400 times as sweet as sucrose (cane sugar), with no calories. (By comparison, nutrasweet is 150 times as sweet as glucose.)

While is has been used in Japan as a sugar alternative for over 30 years, and at one time claimed roughly 41% of the sweetener market in that country, it is not yet approved by the FDA in the United States. On the other hand, artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and Saccharin are approved, despite potential health risks. In fact, 75% of all non-drug complaints to the FDA are regarding aspartame reactions.

The South American herb called Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is indigenous to Paraguay. It was known by the Guarani Indians since ancient times and spread by settlers to neighboring countries of Brazil and Argentina for centuries while still only harvested in the wild. Commercial production began in the early 1900s. Named by an Italian botanist Bertoni who from 1887 to 1915 gradually learned more and more about the plant. He initially thought it a rare plant because he was looking for it outside of its indigenous area. Later he acknowledged it was well known.

USDA Commissioner Brady who wished to see it made available in the US first brought Stevia to US in 1921.

Commercial resistance to stevia is known as far back as 1913 when a German agency described it as a well known plant “which alarmed sugar producers years ago” The US FDA labeled stevia as an “unsafe food additive” despite also acknowleding it as a well known and historically well used plant. The FDA has been accused of caving in to established commercial interests in excluding stevia from the US market. Although calling stevia “unsafe” the FDA provides little evidence to back up the claim and has stonewalled attempts to prove otherwise. The FDA has also resisted attempts to get full information through the FOIA requests about complaints lodged against companies using stevia.

Stevia can now be legally marketed in the US as a dietary supplement since legislation called the “Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act or DSHEA” passed in 1994, but it cannot be called a “sweetener” or used as a flavoring agent.

Notably popular in Japan from the 1970s on ”Today it is also grown and used in approximately 10 other countries outside South America, including China, Germany, Malaysia, Israel and South Korea. Stevia might by now be entrenched in the United States as well, had it not been for a concerted effort to block its very entry."

Interesting properties of stevia are the intense sweetness (150 to 400 times sweeter than sugar), the wide variety of active ingredients in different plants and its ability to withstand heat. It cannot always be used to directly replace digestible sugars, it doesn’t have any energy the human body can use, nor can it provide the energy needed to ferment yeast. It also can’t be caramelized or be used to provide texture and to soften baked goods.

If you are interested in trying stevia, look in health food stores under food supplements, not in the sweetner or tea area. It may be a white powder or a clear liquid. Stevia should not be grown from seed, rather plants with proven high steviosides are best vegetatively propagated by the use of cutting. Stevia can be grown in most temperate and tropical zones either as a tender perenial, a short lived perenial or an annual.

If you are interested in growing stevia, look for it at local herb garden centers or small plants may be purchased online from Canadian and US companies. It is not illegal to grow, use or market stevia as a food supplement. It is only illegal in the US to market or sell stevia as a sweetner or a food flavoring agent.

My primary source of information as well as a place to order the product or plants is I do use stevia personally and find it to be a great sweetener for drinks and some cooked items. I don't grow it.

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