Stevia, a well-known sugar alternative, has a longer history than most people are aware of. Though the plant was first commercialized as a stevia sweetener in 1971, natives of Paraguay have been extensively using stevia for more than 1,500 years. Indeed, we owe them the discovery of this sweet and nutritional herbal plant that has slowly gained popularity in the modern world. Now, take a trip with us through the chronicles of stevia and discover how such a simple plant has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Stevia – An Ancient Discovery
Centuries ago, the Guarani Indians, indigenous people of Paraguay, discovered that this shrub-like herb had leaves that could be used as a sweetener. The natives called the plant kaa he he which means “sweet herb.” Once discovered, they began to use stevia to sweeten their medicinal potions as well as a bitter tea-like drink called “hot mate.” They also chewed the leaves because of their sweet taste, sort of like eating candy in the modern age. Later on, the natives were able to discover that aside from its sweetening property, stevia also had medicinal benefits. Thus, the Guarani Indians also used the plant for healing wounds, blemishes, and sores, smoothing wrinkles and softening skin, balancing their blood sugar, helping digestion, and keeping the pancreas healthy. By the early 1500s, Spanish Conquistadors were able to learn about the plant and its amazing qualities from the natives. By the 1800s, the stevia sweetener became a commodity that was used daily not only be the Guarani Indians of Paraguay but also by other indigenous tribes living in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and even part of the United States. Around this time, Europeans were also becoming more interested in the stevia plant and its properties.
Stevia’s Journey into the New World
Though the Spanish had already chronicled the widespread use of stevia by the natives in historical documents (now kept in the Paraguayan National Archives located in Asuncion), the plant’s “discovery” is actually credited to Europeans. The first European said to have studied the plant was a Spanish botanist and doctor named Pedro Jaime Esteve. The kaa he he’s new name, stevia, actually came from the Latinized version of his surname. In 1887, Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, Swiss botanist and director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion, was conducting research somewhere in eastern Paraguay. It was there that some of his guides informed him about a strange plant that had some very interesting qualities. Unfortunately, he couldn’t locate it as he was stationed in an area where the plant did not grow. It was 12 years later, when he received a packet of dried leaves of stevia, that he was finally able to start studying the plant. He proclaimed his “discovery” by publishing an article in an Asuncion botanical journal. He named this new species of the plant Stevia rebaudiana, in honor of a Paraguayan chemist named Rebaudi who was the first to create the stevia extract. In 1903, Bertoni was given a live plant by his friend who was a parish priest in Villa San Pedro. This gift allowed him to do a complete study of the stevia plant. From his study, he became convinced of stevia’s superiority over sugar as a sweetener.
The Rise of Stevia Plantations
As the use of the stevia extract became more popular, so did its production. Prior to the 1900s, the plant was only grown in the wild, its natural habitat. By 1908, the first crop of dried leaves was already harvested and soon after, stevia plantations began cropping up here and there. The cultivation of this sweet herb was also caused by the decrease of stevia’s natural habitat due to deforestation. Because of the increase in the number of plantations, its use also began to increase within and outside of South America.
The Commercialization of Stevia
Though there was a marked increase in the number of stevia users, its commercial potential was not realized until decades into the future. It was in 1918 that a botanist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture first introduced the plant to the United States government. Three years later, American Trade Commissioner George S. Brady brought the plant to the attention of the USDA as a sugar plant that has commercial potential. Unfortunately, nothing came out of this second introduction to the plant.
In 1931, two chemists in France were able to isolate two compounds in the leaf of the plant that gave it its sweetening property. The compounds were named stevioside and rebaudioside. The significance of this event is that, decades later, the Japanese were able to discover how useful the stevioside compound really was. During the 60s, Japan was really strict about the chemical additives in their food which included banning or strictly regulating the production and use of artificial sweeteners. Thus, based on the 1931 discovery, Japan was able to find a new alternative to sugar and its artificial alternatives – stevia extract. And because of that amazing find, Japan was the first country to commercialize the plant. By the 80s, stevia was being added to soft drinks, ice cream, bread, candies, pickles, and seafood. Today, stevia holds about 41% of the market on sweeteners in Japan. The country is also the number one consumer of stevia. The popularity and commercialization of this sweet herb is not just in Japan. It is now cultivated and used in China, Germany, Israel, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, and parts of South America.
Category: What is Stevia