The genus Stevia consists of 240 species of plants native to South America, Central America, and Mexico, with several species found as far north as Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.Human use of the sweet species S. rebaudiana originated in South America. The leaves of the stevia plant have 30–45 times the sweetness of sucrose (ordinary table sugar). The leaves can be eaten fresh, or put in teas and foods.
In 1899, The Swiss botanist Moisés Santiago Bertoni first described the plant and the sweet taste in detail. But only limited research was conducted on the topic, until in 1931, two French chemists isolated the glycosides that give stevia its sweet taste. These compounds were named stevioside and rebaudioside, and are 250–300 times sweeter than sucrose, heat stable, pH stable, and non-fermentable.
The exact structure of the aglycone and the glycoside were published in 1955.
In the early 1970s, Japan began cultivating stevia as an alternative to artificial sweeteners such as cyclamate and saccharin, which were suspected carcinogens. The plant’s leaves, the aqueous extract of the leaves, and purified steviosides are used as sweeteners. Since the Japanese firm Morita Kagaku Kogyo Co., Ltd. produced the first commercial stevia sweetener in Japan in 1971, the Japanese have been using stevia in food products, soft drinks (including Coca Cola), and for table use. Japan currently consumes more stevia than any other country, with stevia accounting for 40% of the sweetener market.
Today, stevia is cultivated and used in food elsewhere in east Asia, including in China (since 1984), Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia. It can also be found in Saint Kitts and Nevis, in parts of South America (Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, and Uruguay) and in Israel. China is the world’s largest exporter of stevioside.
Stevia species are found in the wild in semi-arid habitats ranging from grassland to mountain terrain. Stevia does produce seeds, but only a small percentage of them germinate. Planting cloned stevia is a more effective method of reproduction.
Names in other languages
Both the sweetener and the stevia plant Stevia rebaudiana (also known as Eupatorium rebaudianum) are known simply as “stevia” (pronounced /ˈstiːviə/) in English-speaking countries as well as in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Israel, Norway and Sweden — although some of these countries also use other terms as shown below. Similar pronunciations occur in Japan (sutebia or ステビア in katakana), and in Thailand (satiwia). In some countries (India, for example) the name translates literally as “sweet leaf.” Below are some names for the stevia plant in various regions of the world:
* South Africa (Afrikaans): heuningblaar (honey leaf)
* China: 甜菊 (tian jü – sweet chrysanthemum), 甜菊叶 (tian jü ye – stevia leaf)
* Dutch-speaking countries: honingkruid
* English-speaking countries: candy leaf, sugar leaf, sweetleaf (USA), sweet honey leaf (Australia), sweet herb of Paraguay
* German speaking countries, also Switzerland: Süßkraut, Süßblatt, Honigkraut
* Hungary: jázmin pakóca
* India: madhu parani (Marathi), gurmaar (Punjabi), madhu patra (Sanskrit), seeni tulsi (Tamil), madhu patri (Telugu)
* Israel: סטיביה (sṭīviyyāh in Hebrew)
* Japan: アマハステビア (amaha sutebia)
* Portuguese-speaking countries: capim doce (sweet grass), erva doce (sweet herb, also a Portuguese term for fennel), estévia (Brazil), folhas da stévia
* Spanish-speaking countries: hierba / yerba dulce, estevia, ka´a heê (sweet herb) (Guaraníes, Natives of Paraguay)
* Sweden: sötflockel
* Thailand: satiwia, หญ้าหวาน (ya wan, or sweet grass in Bangkok)