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What is Stevia?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Stevia is a word both for a plant and for a sweetener extracted from the leaves of that plant. The plant has been grown and used in South America for centuries, and it spread to the rest of the world during the 18th century, when people first began taking the product with them to Europe in large volumes.

In the early 1900s, stevia exploded into popularity in several markets, but the rest of the 20th century was accompanied by vicious battles over it around the world. Some people hail the extract as a healthy, all natural alternative to sugar, while others have health concerns about it, on the basis of laboratory research which suggests the need for further study.

The stevia plant is a perennial shrub native to Paraguay and Brazil. Native Americans in these regions realized that the leaves were sweet, and used them to season teas and other foods. The plant is also sometimes called sweetleaf or sugarleaf, in a reference to the natural sweetness held in the leaves. As Europeans began to explore the foods consumed by Native Americans, they were introduced to stevia.

In the 1930s, chemists in France isolated stevioside, the compound in the leaves that is responsible for their sweetness. This compound is sometimes sold isolated from the leaves in a highly refined form. In other cases, the sweetener is made by crushing or distilling the leaves of the plant to form a powder or a syrup with an intensely sweet flavor.

It has been shown that stevia is much sweeter than other sugars, meaning that only a small amount needs to be used. The body also processes stevia very slowly, which greatly reduces the risk of a sugar high. In addition, it is essentially calorie free, which is why it is popular with dieters. Research also suggests that this sweetener may be safe for diabetics, although diabetics should always consult their doctors about additions to their diet which may alter their blood sugar.

Although stevia sounds like a miracle herb, scientific research may suggest otherwise. Some scientists are concerned that it may be a mutagen, meaning that it could cause cancer. Stevia has also been linked to reproductive malfunction. Some of these studies have been imperfectly performed, but the need for more thorough analysis of the compound has certainly been demonstrated. Proponents suggest that these studies may be part of a larger effort on the part of sugar companies to keep alternatives to sugar off the market, pointing out that stevia is widely used in South America and Asia with no noticeable ill effects. Given the argument over this sweetener, it would appear that more controlled studies are needed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon945271 — On Apr 11, 2014

I think the key is, as stated in the article, that there needs to be more tests on Stevia. I have not seen any references to any scientific studies done on the product. I have found a reference relating Stevia (the sweetener) with Erythritol (which is a corn based "fermentation of glucose") also used as a sweetener. The fact is that, if there is scientific research on this product, it is hard to get to.

By anon274078 — On Jun 09, 2012

With these thoughts about Stevia, I am now confused about whether I will use this or not. It has some beneficial effects on humans but it also has a bad side if this some scientist who said that stevia can cause cancer and birth defects.

By anon202145 — On Aug 01, 2011

While I don't necessarily disagree with the article, reading it I just kept thinking "some scientists? yay weasel words. Sure, but *who*? 'some scientists' isn't a who.".

And then I thought "You know, Wikipedia would never put up with vague statements like 'some scientists'."

After which I was thinking "wait a minute... Wikipedia? Seriously? That's actually kind of neat. Maybe Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, but the community at large has some damned good standards regarding citations and verification that people should adopt."

Also to hottung25: Does China have laws regarding how much protein is allowed to be in stevia? If not, then that's just probably people pissing in the wind. It's not "China plus Food = Melamine" it's "China plus Protein Ratio Requirements = Melamine".

However, I wouldn't put it past Chinese food companies to go "Hey wait a minute, Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar. We can use 1/300th the stevia and save money because sugar is expensive." Then the next thing you know, you have a live laboratory test involving stevia and 4 billion people.

By comfyshoes — On Mar 01, 2011

Hottung25 - Wow I didn’t know that. I think that it is probably better just to use plain old sugar instead of this Stevia sweetener.

Unless you are diabetic and cannot metabolize sugar then you have limited choices.

I know that in the 70’s they did studies for saccharin which was the sweetener used at the time for diet drinks like Tab.

They also found that it could cause cancer in laboratory rats. What they failed to mention is the sheer amount of saccharin given to these rats.

In addition, in December of 2000, the FDA removed the warning labels for products containing saccharin because it was found that laboratory rats had different levels of protein in their blood as well as a different PH levels in their urine than what a human would have so while the ingredient may promote bladder cancer in rats it will not have the same effect on humans.

By hottung25 — On Jun 01, 2009

Cargill is 1 of 2 of the largest US manufacturers of Stevia in China. China's total output of Stevia is 44000 metric tons. So most likely the Stevia we consume in the USA is from China.

Stevia is supposed to be a natural extraction from a plant, but no doubt some company out there will or already has synthesized it from a petrochem.

When Melamine was found in dogfood recently to show that it gave higher protein levels during analysis, there is some rumor that they may also be adding Melamine to Stevia. Both are white powders so it would be easy to hide.

Fortunately someone found that Melamine is a toxin to dogs, humans, and other living entities.

Hopefully, China will be keeping it out of all food as an additive.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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