The Stevia Plant
The plant from which Stevia is extracted is the Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni plant and is native to South America. Found predominantly in the Amambay Mountain range and the Rio Monday Valley, which are in Northeastern Paraguay and Southern Brazil, this leafy green plant has been used for many hundreds of years as a sweetener and for other purposes. Part of the Chrysanthemum family, this plant is known by a variety of different names including yerba dulce, erva doce, honey leaf, sweet leaf, Ka’a-he’e, zuca-ka’a and Ka’a-yupe.
Stevia: Sweeter than Sugar
A member of genus Stevia, which has approximately 240 species in its family, the Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni plant is the only one that is cultivated for use in creating the product that we know as Stevia. It is actually the leaves of the plant that are used for sweetening. There are two components, Stevioside and Rebaudioside (Reb A), in the leaves that are more than 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is these components which are extracted to make the different consumer products called Stevia, Stevioside and others.
Historically, Stevia has been used for centuries. The Spaniards discovered in the 1700s that Paraguay natives used what they referred to as Ka’a He’e as a sweetener, a snack and for medicinal purposes. People from neighboring countries also used the natural sweetener. In the late 1800s Moises S. Bertoni documented its use following his study of Paraguayan herbs. By 1908, the plant was actively being cultivated in its native region, as word of its usefulness spread.
Stevia’s International Appeal
In 1931, two French chemists successfully extracted Stevioside and Rebaudioside from the plant leaves. This spawned the potential for growth and widespread use of Stevia. By the early 1970s the plant was being cultivated in Japan. This country is now the largest user of Stevia in the world, consuming 50 tons annually. Approximately 40% of Japan’s natural sweeteners have Stevia in them.
The Stevia plant is now also being grown commercially in various places in the world, including Asia, India, North America, South America and Europe. It only grows wild in its native habitat of Paraguay and Brazil. Cultivation of this plant, that offers amazing health benefits, requires sunlight, precipitation and great amounts of manual caretaking. The plant cannot survive at temperatures below freezing and great care should be taken if attempting to grow it in areas subject to frost.
Growing and Harvesting the Stevia Plant
Harvesting of the Stevia plant involves cutting the stems down to a height of 5 centimetres or 2 inches from the soil. This can be done as often as 3 to 4 times annually, making it a very prolific crop. Following harvest, the leaves are cleaned and then dried in the sun or with hot air dryers before being processed to remove the beneficial components used in creating the different forms of Stevia. Fresh Stevia leaves can also be boiled for use as a tea or a natural liquid sweetener.
The plant itself can be grown in almost any country around the world. However, the use of the Stevia extract from it is much more restricted. Many countries allow its use in different ways. Some countries use Stevia in a variety of food products, others allow its use only as a dietary supplement. No matter what the policies of different governments, cultivation of the Stevia plant continues to abound and the product’s popularity continues to grow.