Stevia is a plant native to South America, one with delicious green leaves that are incredibly sweet. Chew a few leaves or add a couple of crushed leaves to your drink, and presto, you have your drink sweet and delicious. This was discovered almost 1500 years ago by the Guarani, a people native to Paraguay. The importance of this discovery is only increasing as the modern world we live in, battles over-weight and diabetes.
The natives called this plant kaa he-he “sweet herb” and it is learnt that the plant had several other uses including softening of the skin, aiding digestion, balancing blood sugar and healing sores and wounds. Obviously like it has happened with several precious resources, the European settlers discovered its benefits too and then things got moving.
Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion, Paraguay had heard his natuve guides talk about a strange plant with interesting qualities. One day, he received a packed of kaa hehe leaves from a plantation in the north and announced his “discovery” in a botanical journal. He named the plant Stevia Rebaudiana in honor of chemist Rebaudi who later identified the sweetness component of Stevia. And the journey began.
The first crop of Stevia was harvested in 1908, but it became more commercially viable only in 1931. In the same year, two French chemists isolated Stevioside, a white crystalline extract that gives stevia its sweet taste. Now, the world had a potential alternative to sugar.
Japan became among the earliest of nations to use Stevia on a large scale. Recognising that Stevia was a safer choice than aspartame and saccharin, Stevia was used increasingly in ice cream, bread, chocolates, vegetables and soft drinks in 1988. By 1994, 41% of all sweet substances consumed in Japan consisted of Stevia according to reports.
Stevia in the USA – taste and health
Though widely available throughout the world, Stevia was banned in the U.S. in 1991 as earlier studies indicated that the sweetener was potentially harmful. In December 2008, the FDA declared Stevia GRAS and permitted its use in mainstream food production.
Today, even large conglomerates such as Coca-cola and Pepsi have petitioned the FDA to change Stevia’s status as a dietary supplement to a sweetener so they can be used in soft drinks.