Since Pre-Colombian time the natives of Paraguay and Brazil used the leaves of the Kaa he-he (translates as "sweet herb") to sweeten the bitter tea known as mate. Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is a herb in the chrysanthemum family that grows as a small shrub. The glycosides in its leaves make it incredibly sweet. Natural scientist Antonio Bertoni first recorded it usage in 1887.
Grown commercially in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Central America, Israel, Thailand and China, this unassuming plant is one of the major sweeteners in use in Japan and Korea. Stevia and its extracts have captured over 40% of the Japanese market. Major multinational food companies like Coca Cola and Beatrice foods, convinced of its safety, use Stevia extracts to sweeten foods for sale in Japan, Brazil and many other countries. Originally introduced to Japan in 1970 by a consortium of food product manufacturers, stevioside quickly caught on. In addition to use as a tabletop sweetener Stevia is also used by the Japanese to sweeten a variety of food products, including ice cream, bread, candies, pickles, seafood, vegetables, and soft drinks.
Elaborate safety tests were performed by the Japanese during their evaluation of Stevia as a possible sweetening agent. Few substances have ever yielded such consistently negative results in toxicity trials. Almost every toxicity test imaginable has been performed on Stevia extract, the results are always negative. No abnormalities in weight change, food intake, cell or membrane characteristics, enzyme and substrate utilization, or chromosome characteristics. No cancer, no birth defects, no acute and no chronic untoward effects. Nothing.
In general, Stevia is an all-natural herbal product with centuries of safe usage. It has been thoroughly tested in dozens of trials around the world and found to be completely non-toxic. It has been consumed safely in massive quantities for the past 30 years. Yet until recently it was available in the United States only as a food supplement not as a sweetener.
Last month the Food and Drug Administration approved this zero calorie sweetener for use in food and beverages. The extract of the Stevia plant is said to be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar yet, has no effect on blood sugar levels. Finally available is a safe, all-natural alternative to toxic chemical based sugar substitutes.
Stevia has proved to be quite adaptable and capable of being cultivated in climate zones as diverse as Florida and southern Canada. While home grown Stevia may lack the potency of refined white Stevia extract it can provide you with freshly harvested leaves to augment your supply of commercial Stevia sweeteners. Raising Stevia yourself, whether in your back yard or on your patio, is a positive (and legal) way to protest the greedy government policies that have for so long deprived the American people of it benefits.
Organic gardeners in particular should enjoy the benefits of adding Stevia to their yield. Though non-toxic, the plant has been found to be a natural insect-repellent. The sweetness of the plant is a defense against aphids and other bugs. Even crop devastating grasshoppers bypass Stevia crops.
It is highly recommended that you purchase 'starter' plants to begin your Stevia garden. These may already be available from a nursery or herbalist in your area. Try to determine if your starter plants have been grown from cuttings whose source was high in stevioside. The tender young shoots are sensitive to low temperatures. So it is important to wait until the danger of frost is past and soil temperatures are in the 50s and 60s before transplanting. Roots can be adversely affected by excessive moisture. Take care not to over water and make sure the soil drains well, isn't soggy or subject to flooding. Adding a layer of compost around each plant will help keep shallow feeder roots from drying out. Stevia plants respond best to fertilizers with a lower nitrogen content.
Harvest as late as possible, since cool autumn temperatures intensify the sweetness of the plant. Once harvested you will need to dry the leaves. Sun drying for about 12 hours is the preferred method. The final step is crushing the leaves. This can be done either by hand or with a coffee or herb grinder. Liquid Stevia extract can be made by adding a cup of warm water to 1/4 cup of fresh, finely-crushed Stevia leaves. Let set for 24 hours, strain and refrigerate.
Whether you choose to use commercially available Stevia or grow your own this newly accessible alternative is sure to prove a healthier, greener addition to your diet. There are great expectations that Stevia will begin to help control not only diabetes but also obesity and high blood pressure.
Visit Uriel on Myspace!