Calling it ka’a he’e (natively translated as sweet herb) and using it as a sweetener in yerba mate and other medicinal teas for centuries, the Guarani Native Americans of Paraguay and Brazil – as well as the Chinese and others throughout Southeast Asia – have used stevia rebaudiana to treat everything from obesity and heartburn to high blood pressure and lethargy.
A New World, A New Plant “Discovered”
Will sugar always be more advantageous than Kaa-he-e? We cannot suppose this. The superiority of sugar as an energetic food will not be contested, but this does not stop our plant from being stronger as a sweetener.
Kaa-he-e, Its Nature and Its Properties, by Dr. Moises N. Bertoni, Paraguayan Scientific Analysis, December 1905
In 1887, while trekking Paraguay forests, Dr. Moises Bertoni quote-unquote discovered, in his words, “a very strange plant”. Because stevia was not native to the wooded area he was then exploring, the director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion, Bertoni, was unable to find it at first. It would be another twelve years before he would find concrete evidence of the stevia’s existence – a tiny collection of stevia pieces. He quickly announced his “discovery” of the stevia species in an Asuncion botanical journal.
The doctor christened the stevia genus to pay homage to the Paraguayan chemist, Rebaudi, who would go on to be the first to product stevia extract.
Stevia In the 20th Century
An living stevia plant would not be uncovered until the early 20th century, when Bertoni received the previously unknown specimen from South American priest. He went on to finish his studies of the stevia plant, claiming
the sweetening power of kaa he-e is so superior to sugar that there is no need to wait for the results of analyses and cultures to affirm its economic advantage … the simplest test proves it.
Bertoni’s studies paved the way for commercial stevia harvesting and production in the early 20th century. Having previously been limited to growth only in the wild, stevia quickly bloomed into a very real potential crop. Several years later, the first stevia crop was grown and harvested. From then on, stevia use exploded in South America and elsewhere.
Capitalism as it is brought word of this potentially marketable new product into the spotlight. The stevia debate was brought before the United States Department of Agriculture by a botanist in 1918 who described its
Shortly thereafter, the USDA studied stevia as a
new sugar plant with great commercial possibilities and took note of its apparent safety and ease of production.
In 1931, French chemists isolated glycosides – the chemical components that give stevia its sweet taste – and called them steviosides and rebaudiosides. The pure form of each of these compounds is up to three hundred times sweeter than sugar, although stevia’s sweetness has a slower development and lasts longer than table sugar. At high concentrations, it can take on a bitter, anise flavor.
Roughly 30 years ago, in the 1970s, the Japanese started looking at stevia as an alternative to other artificial and chemical sweeteners such as saccharin. The sweetener can be found in the leaves of the stevia plant, the liquid extracted from those leaves, and purified forms of the aforementioned steviosides. Since 1977, Japan has used all forms of this stevia commercially in food manufacturing, soft drinks, and as a table sweetener.
Stevia – Present and Future
Today, Stevia demand and use are on the rise worldwide. Stevia-sweetened food can found in Asis (including Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Thailand), in parts of the Caribbean, and of course throughout South America.
At present, stevia’s future in the United States and the European Union remains uncertain. While it’s legal to import, grow, and consume stevia here in the U.S. and the FDA moved in 1995 to permit stevia to be used as a dietary/food supplement, it has not garnered its full stamp of approval on stevia as a food additive. A difference without a distinction? Perhaps. Tomato, tomahto … Stevia’s proponents are all too happy and sweet to care.
Stevia Health Resources
- Stevia: Not Ready For Prime Time (via CSPINet.org)
- Stevia Leaf – Too Good To Be Legal? by Rob McCaleb, Herb Research Foundation
- Questions & Answers about Stevia by David Richard
- Your Health and What You Eat – A growing collection of health information on stevia and aspartame