Stevia is a small perennial shrub that belongs to the Compositae family, related to lettuce, marigold and chicory.
It was “officially discovered” and classified in the late 19th century by Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, naming the plant “Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni.”
He was given samples of the plant ka’a he’ê (“sweet herb”) by the Guarani Indians, who used the leaves of the plant for more than 1,500 years to sweeten bitter teas, to treat various ailments and as a sweet treat. He documented that “one small piece of the leaf will keep the mouth sweet for an hour”.
In its natural herb form,
- Stevia is approximately 10 to 15 times sweeter than Sucrose when chewed
- It is diabetic safe, as it does not adversely affect blood sugar, and may even improve control
- It is non toxic
- It inhibits the formation of cavities and plaque
- It can be used for cooking, as it is heat stable to 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit)
This sweetness perception is caused by three of its components; Steviosides and Rebaudioside A and C (there are 5 Rebaudioside compounds in the plant), as isolated by chemists M. Bridel and R. Lavielle in 1931. These compounds when isolated become a white powder rated at 70 to 400 times sweeter then Sucrose, depending on the ratio of Steviosides to Rebaudiosides in the plant. (Variance in growing conditions, quality of soil etc.)
Stevia in various forms now makes up around 40% of Japan’s sweetener market and consumption there has been in general use there since the ’70’s, however the US and EU only recently approved highly refined exclusive Rebaudioside A extract as suitable for food use, the US in 2008, the EU as an “Approved Flavouring” in 2011.
This approval, however convoluted, is good for us, as it gives us a fully natural and non calorific sweetener choice. The cynical viewpoint would be to say that the approval of only processed Rebaudioside A is a sop to the cash-cow food industry, as there is no money in selling plants… But I chose to look on the bright side!
As a sidebar : The US FDA feels that “leaf and crudely processed” Stevia is not GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) having in 1986 seized Stevia inventories and in 1991 fully stating they felt it non GRAS.