Growing wild in the highlands of
land-locked Paraguay is found a small perennial shrub which produces
the sweetest substance on earth. This shrub, once found only there,
is rapidly becoming much more widely known and cultivated for this
sweet essence which is harvested from its leaves.
The plant, which grows to be
one metre tall and bears leaves two to three centimetres long, is
called Khaa Jeé by the natives. It is more commonly known as stevia
Stevia rebaudiana or by its common names of "sweet leaf of Paraguay"
or "honey yerba." Since pre-Columbian times the indigenous peoples
of this area have collected stevia from the rainforests to use as a
sweetener, to treat diabetes, hypertension, and to keep skin looking
In the 16th century the
Spaniards noted this mysterious plant, but it wasn't until 1889 that
the first studies were done by botanist M. S. Bertoni. He
"discovered" stevia after seeing its use by Guaraní natives, and his
studies showed that stevia is 200-400 times sweeter than sugar - but
has no negative side effects.
In the early 1900s stevia was
being widely used throughout Paraguay, and had earned the attention
of other countries. By 1941 it was being grown in Britain as a
sweetener to combat the shortages brought on by the Second World
War. In the mid 1950s the Japanese started growing
stevia and by the 1970s, after extensive studies, they began
marketing it as an alternative to aspartame. Today, health conscious
Japan is one of the world's largest users of stevia, although stevia
is widely used in other countries as well. It is used in Japan in
gum, diet soda and in a large multitude of other products.
Studies now show that stevia's
benefits include: pancreas nourishment, blood sugar regulation,
stabilization of high blood pressure, digestive aid, prevention of
tooth and gum decay, suppression of cravings, safe for diabetics and
candida sufferers and as a great weight loss aid: the native Guaraní
knew their stevia well!
- Jolene Pilger
Article ©2002 STEVIA CANADA