Stevia, Sweet Herb of Paraguay

STEVIA Sweet Herb of Paraguay

Stevia rebaudiana, a tender perennial in the daisy family, is 150 to 400 times as sweet as sugar, but has 1/300th of sugar’s calories! For hundreds of years, the Guarana Indians and others in stevia’s native Paraguay have used the leaves to sweeten bitter, caffeine-rich maté and many other beverages.

In the 1970’s, Japanese companies tested stevia for food safety and began using it as a sweetener. By now it is an ingredient in more than seventy Japanese food products, including candy, ice cream, yogurt, fruit drinks, gum, soy sauce, and Japanese pickles. The sweet herb of Paraguay is also widely used in South Korea, Thailand, the People’s Republic of China, and Brazil.

In the U.S., however, stevia is intermittently available in health food stores, sold in bulk and as a powder. The Food and Drug Administration has classified it as a food additive rather than a food, and as such, it is considered unsafe until proven safe. It must undergo extensive toxicological tests before it can be approved for food use. But no company is willing to pay for the tests, because stevia exists in nature and cannot be patented (unlike such additives as NutraSweet.) If stevia were approved by the FDA, all companies would have equal access, and no one company could make a big profit on the herb.

Fortunately, Pacific Northwest gardeners can now grow stevia in their home gardens. Log House Plants is introducing it to local nurseries this summer. (It is completely legal both to grow stevia and sell it to home gardeners, and also to grow it in home gardens.)

Stevia is a fast-growing tender perennial that grows during the summer from a rooted cutting to a large, sturdy, bright green bush, 3 to 4 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet tall. Stevia thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. It needs to dry out between waterings; its roots rot if they stay too moist. When the plants develop flower buds, pinch the flowers off as you would with basil. If stevia plants are allowed to flower, they droop and then become dormant.

After you have harvested the last stevia leaves of the season, cut the plants back hard, leaving a few leaves on each branch, and grow them indoors in pots during the winter. Grow them in the sunniest window you can find, and make sure to water them only when the soil feels dry.

Stevia leaves are delicious fresh or dried in hot and iced teas. You can freeze fresh stevia leaves in ice cubes, and use them to cool and sweeten iced teas, juices, and sodas. Stevia’s flavor is stable when it is cooked, so you can use it in jams and canned fruits, and in cakes, cookies, and other cooked desserts. For cooking, stevia is most often used powdered or as a syrup concentrate. Stevia leaves are easy to dry and crumble into powder, and they hold their bright green color when dry. Home-grown stevia tastes much better than store-bought, because most stevia available in health food stores is made of stems as well as leaves.

Stevia has many health benefits. It provides a natural, good-tasting sweetener for people who are diabetic and for people who want to lose or control their weight. Also, some studies have shown that it contains substances that inhibit tooth decay and plaque formation – a sweetener that is good for your teeth! And other studies show that stevia increases mental alertness, decreases fatigue, improves digestion, regulates blood pressure, and eases hypoglycemia.

Despite such a wide range of health benefits, it is difficult to say when stevia will be approved by the FDA and become widely available in American food. Until that day comes, you can have a plentiful and delicious local source – in your own garden.