Place: Brazil and Paraguay

Uses: As a sweetener

Fun Fact: Stevia is sweeter than sugar up to 300 times!

Stevia: Origin and History

Stevia is an herb renowned the world over for its sweet leaf and delicate flavor, slightly reminiscent of a mild licorice. A tender perennial native to Brazil and Paraguay, this small-statured herb has been enjoyed for centuries by the Guaraní people of the region, who use the herb to sweeten their local yerba mate tea, as medicine, and also as a sweet treat.

In 1899, botanist Moisés Santiago Bertoni documented this interesting member of the sunflower family, known by its Latin name, Stevia rebaudiana. Bertoni was Swiss, but he moved to Latin America in 1884 and spent the rest of his life living and working in Paraguay. While Bertoni made note of its unique sweet taste, it would be another 50 years before stevia would catch on outside of its homeland.

Green stevia leaves

Stevia leaves

Japanese farmers took a particular interest in stevia in the 1960s, and were the first to grow the herb as a commercial crop. Stevia was encouraged as an all-natural, plant-based alternative to artificial sweeteners, and its success there was helped along by government regulations on their use in commercial food products. Its widespread use in Japan has never dwindled, and today Japan accounts for almost 40 percent of the world’s stevia consumption.

For many of stevia’s traditional uses, the leaves of the plant can be dried and ground into a fine powder, but most modern commercial applications call for a manufactured extract known generically as stevia and sold under various trade names. This zero-calorie, natural sweetener can be found in a myriad of products throughout the grocery store, from soft drinks and confections to dairy products and snack foods.

Why Was Stevia Banned?

Stevia hasn’t always enjoyed such widespread acceptance, especially amongst regulators in the United States. Following the commercial introduction of the synthetic sweetener aspartame in 1983, the FDA moved to ban the use of stevia as a food additive. This was seen by many as an attempt to protect the chemical giant Monsanto’s newest aspartame-based product, NutraSweet.

A person holding stevia leaves with an ice cream in his hand.

Stevia plant

It wasn’t until 2008, after the publication of a rigorous food safety study funded by the Coca-Cola Company that the FDA reclassified high-purity extracts of stevia as GRAS, or a food additive “generally regarded as safe.” Coca-Cola and other companies have now built a powerhouse industry around this ancient herb. Worldwide, sales of stevia are projected to grow from $637 million in 2018 to $1.1 billion by 2026. This growth is driven in part by the development of new ways of processing the chemical components of stevia leaf.

Even today, stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are banned from use in commercial food products in the United States, despite the herb’s long history of use, as well as its potential health benefits. Stevia leaf is a zero-calorie sweetener and a 2016 study reported that dried stevia leaf powder significantly lowered blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Other studies have shown that use of stevia may lower blood pressure and encourage weight loss, though results are inconclusive, and scientists say further study is needed.

How to Grow Stevia?

Despite the FDA’s heavy-handed approach to the use of stevia leaf in commercial food production, this little herb is easy to grow at home and can be enjoyed by anyone looking to add a little sweetness to their life.

Fresh stevia leaves are bursting with a sweet flavor and are said to be ten times sweeter than table sugar. Despite its tropical origins, stevia can easily be grown as an annual in temperate climates and even does well when cultivated indoors. Seeds may be slow to germinate, but are certainly worth the effort! The trick to a successful stevia patch is to sow the seeds uncovered and to keep them well-lit, well-heated and evenly moist.

White stevia flowers

White Stevia Flowers

With proper care and a little patience, it won’t be long until you have an abundant harvest of stevia leaves to enjoy — and we think that’s a pretty sweet idea!

So, if you are ready to transform your outdoor space into a botanical masterpiece, explore our shop for a wide selection of other herbs and flower seeds! Start cultivating your botanical dreams today!