Stevia: The Paraguayan Sweetener

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Stevia comes from a plant related to ragweed that grows in the Amambay Mountain range in Paraguay. It was known to the Guarani people of that region long before the European colonists arrived. The Guarani people recognized the herb’s powerful sweetening ability and used the leaves to mute the bitterness of mate, a steeped beverage similar to tea. It was also used to make medicinal compounds more palatable.

Conquering Spaniards documented the extensive use of stevia among the locals. The Spaniards themselves would eventually begin using the herb. Its use eventually spread to other South American countries.

The first European to document the stevia plant was Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni who first noted the plant’s existence in 1887. In 1905, he published a study of the plant in which he described its sweetening power as being superior to that of sugar. By 1908, farmers had begun cultivating the stevia plant. As the plant became more famous, it attracted the attention of business interests in the US but their interest did not progress beyond the early shows of curiosity.

French chemists isolated the compound in stevia responsible for its sweetness and named it stevioside. Despite its obvious potential as a sugar alternative, nothing came of it until it arrived on the Japanese market in the 1970s. The Japanese had already restricted the sale of artificial sweeteners and readily adopted stevia extract as a natural sweetener. Stevia became a popular sweetening option for a wide range of food items in Japan including ice cream and candies.

Today stevia is grown in many countries. China, Germany, and Malaysia are among the herbs top producers.

Stevia flavor profile

Stevia’s flavor mostly just sweet. Stevia extract may have a mildly bitter aftertaste with a very subtle licorice note. Stevia is many times sweeter than sugar, which means that you need a relatively small amount of it to achieve the same degree of sweetness.

Health benefits of stevia

Unlike sugar and most other sweeteners, stevia actually does have some significant nutritional value. While it does not have significant amounts of major nutrients, it does contain compounds like:

  • Kaempferol: Stevia contains the flavonoid kaempferol, which has antioxidant properties.
  • Glycosides: Glycosides in stevia are the source of its sweet flavor and have been shown to dilate blood vessels, which can alleviate high blood pressure.

The beneficial compounds including those above can have positive impacts on health, including treating and preventing:

  • Obesity: The consumption of sugars is one of the factors in obesity. All sugars are energy dense, and energy that your body does not use up is stored. In comparison, stevia is not a high-calorie food; in fact, it has almost no calories. The lack of calories makes it useful for weight loss.
  • Cancer: Studies have shown that kaempferol has the ability to lower the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Cardiovascular illness: Stevia’s positive effect on high blood pressure means that it may lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  • Osteoporosis: Stevia may help with calcium absorption and may improve bone density and reverse osteoporosis.

Common uses

Use stevia as an all-purpose table sweetener for coffee, tea, and other beverages. You can add it to cereals and yogurt as well. It is a great sweetener for baked goods like cakes and cookies.