The stevia plant, first cultivated in Paraguay, has been used as an herbal sweetener for centuries in South America. The Guarani Indians of Paraguay have long used stevia to make a sweet tea, and the dried leaves and twigs of the plant are commonly sold in local markets and pharmacies.
Also called sweet leaf or sweet herb, an extract is made of the leaves and flowers. Stevia contains a very sweet component called stevioside, with a sweetening effect similar to cane sugar. In Japan, where the government approved the herb in 1970, stevia and its extracts make up 40 percent of the sweetener market, and it is used by companies such as Coca-Cola and Beatrice to sweeten various products such as Diet Coke.
In 1991, the U.S. FDA placed an important ban on stevia, declaring that there is “not adequate evidence to establish that such use in food is safe.” This ban was reversed late in 1995, although it still is required to be sold as a nutritional supplement rather than as a sweetener.
Only a few drops will sweeten a cup of tea; it is also delicious in yogurt, cereal, and baked goods. Stevia’s sweet flavor is not affected by heat, thus it can be used in teas and other beverages, in canning fruits, and when baking all kinds of desserts.
Tests have shown the sweetening agent, the glycoside stevioside, is 30 times sweeter than granulated table sugar. Because it is a whole herbal food, stevia contains other properties that nicely complements its sweetness. A report from the Hiroshima University School of Dentistry indicates that stevia actually suppresses dental bacterial growth rather than feeding it as other sugars do.
Japanese and Latin American scientists have discovered other attributes as well, including its use as a tonic, diuretic, to combat mental and physical fatigue, to harmonize digestion, regulate blood pressure, and assist in weight loss.
Editor’s Note: This book was published in 1996, and since then the stevia market has boomed and there are many stevia products available in health food stores.