Stevia as a herb has a long history to present. It is one such untapped nature’s wonder which has the potential to alter the sugar dynamics of the world. However due to negligence, power equations, pulls & pressures, it has never been duly highlighted as a mass consumerist product despite it’s tried and tested good effects for mankind. So Sweet, pioneer of Indian Stevia makes an attempt to piece together a history of Stevia in all its glory.
Stevia: The Herb
Stevia is a genus of about 240 species of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), native to subtropical and tropical South America and Central America. The species Stevia rebaudiana, commonly known as sweetleaf, sweet leaf, sugarleaf, or simply Stevia, is widely grown for its sweet leaves. As a sweetener and sugar substitute, stevia’s taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar.
Stevia vis-à-vis Sugar
With its extracts having up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, stevia has garnered attention with the rise in demand for low-carbohydrate, low-sugar food alternatives.
For centuries, the Guaraní tribes of Paraguay and Brazil used stevia, which they called ka’a he’ê (“sweet herb”), as a sweetener in yerba mate and medicinal teas for treating heartburn and other ailments.
In 1899, The Swiss botanist Moisés Santiago Bertoni first described the plant and the sweet taste in detail. But only limited research was conducted on the topic, until in 1931, two French chemists isolated the glycosides, namely ‘Stevioside’ and ‘Rebaudioside’ that give Stevia its sweet taste.
During WW II, sugar shortages prompted England to begin investigation of stevia for use as a sweetener. Cultivation began under the direction of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, but the project was abandoned in the aftermath of the war. Japan began cultivating stevia in hothouses in the 1950’s. By the 1970’s, Japan started using stevia commercially and today, they are the biggest users of the extract, which has captured 50% of Japan’s sweetener industry