What is the sweetener, Stevia?

Stevia Garden (photo by J Wynia - CC-BY)

Hydroponic Stevia Garden (photo by J Wynia - CC-BY)

Stevia, the “sugar herb”, “sweet leaf” or “candyleaf”, is a non-caloric natural sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana shrub, a perennial plant native to Paraguay. Paraguayans have used Stevia for centuries to sweeten herbal teas.

Stevia has been used for years as a sweetener in South America, Asia, and some European countries but can only be found in health food stores in North America as a dietary supplement because it is still considered to be an “unsafe food additive” by the FDA. On the other hand, Rebiana, which is extracted from Stevia, has been declared by the FDA as safe to use as a food additive, clearing the way for its use in soft drinks and other products under the brands Truvia (distributed by Cargill and used by Coca Cola) and PureVia (distributed by the Whole Earth Sweetener Co. and used by PepsiCo).  Truvia, PureVia, and SweetLeaf (distributed by Wisdom Natural Brands), are all available to consumers in individual packets.

The sweetness comes from the leaves of a small shrub and although it is a perennial in warm climates, it can’t tolerate cold temperatures and must be grown as a houseplant in colder climates (the warmer the temperature the sweeter the leaf). If you are interested in giving it a try, you can start it from seed or buy the plant at your local garden centre. Better yet, if you have a friend with the plant, ask them for a cutting which you can root. Rich soil, lots of sun and warmth, fertilizer and moderate moisture will keep your plant healthy. Keep the flowers pinched off to encourage robust leaves and you’ll be all set. The leaves can be used fresh or dry them in a dehydrator and use a spice grinder to make into powder.

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