Stevia is a small shrub native to the region of South America where the borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet. The scientific name for stevia is Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni and it is a member of the largest family of plants, Asteraceae which is also called the “sunflower family”. There are 240 close relatives of stevia and they are all herbs or shrubs originating from the tropical and semi-tropical areas of North, Central and South America.
The discovery of the sweetness of the stevia plant is attributed to an Italian-Swiss botanist, Dr. Moisés S. Bertoni, in 1901. However, researchers believe the use of the plant to sweeten medicines and foods by indigenous people dates prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The sweetness of the stevia plant is due to the production of sweet constituents in the plant’s leaves. These constituents, also known as Steviol glycosides, were first identified individually by French researchers, M. Bridel and R. Lavielle, in 1931 for their sweetening power which is 50-450 times as sweet as sucrose. There are at least 10 known Steviol glycosides in the stevia leaf with Stevioside and Rebaudioside A being the most prevalent.
Stevia is a perennial plant, but can be grown as an annual or perennial depending on the growing region. Today, the plant is primarily grown commercially in South America and Asia for the sweet constituents in its leaves. Stevia typically is grown to 1 meter in height before the plant is hand-harvested and its leaves dried.
The sweetness found in the stevia plant is released by steeping its dried leaves in water, filtering and separating the liquid from the leaves and stems, and further purifying the plant extract with either water or food grade alcohol – all conventional plant extraction methods. The result is a naturally sourced, high intensity sweetener that does not impact blood glucose levels.
For decades, high purity stevia extracts have been approved for use in foods and beverages in Japan. Positive safety opinions from global food safety authorities, including the World Health Organization/Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, the European Food Safety Authority, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are opening markets for this new and exciting sweetener.