Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is a plant native to South America (Paraguay) that is now grown across the globe in tropical and sub-tropical climates. While there are 240 varieties of the stevia plant, the one that provides sweetness for many of today’s stevia-based sweeteners is called the stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant.[1]

Stevia leaf extract has been recognized for its zero-calorie sweetness for many years. In fact, the plant has several components that together make up its sweetness. There are many different glycosides—the sweet elements extracted from the leaf—that contribute to the sweet taste in the plant.

What many think of as “stevia” can be found as an ingredient (stevia leaf extract) in tabletop sweeteners at local grocery stores. It is important to note that stevia leaf extract is not the same as an actual stevia plant or crude stevia, but is in fact an ingredient used to provide sweetness for many stevia-based sweeteners.

 

Early Controversies

The history about potential benefits of the stevia plant is the subject of folklore and speculation. Early uses of stevia reportedly were for sweetness as well as for treating arthritis or rheumatism, cardiac problems, GI problems, urinary problems, malaria, skin problems and even for contraceptive purposes.[2] Early testing aimed to validate potential benefits of stevia were hampered by impure samples, which left many questions about stevia unanswered. It was not until the mid-2000s that stevioside, rebaudioside A and other glycosides were isolated, purified and then made available for modern scientific testing.

 

Safety of Stevia Leaf Extract

Since highly purified stevia leaf extract became available, a plethora of tests and clinical studies have been completed, testing everything from whether stevia lowers blood glucose levels (it doesn’t, so it is safe for people with diabetes)[3] to whether it is carcinogenic (it isn’t)[4] to whether a steady diet of stevia is harmful (it isn’t).[5] These studies have satisfied the US FDA to the point that it has categorized stevia leaf extract as GRAS, or Generally Regarded As Safe in the United States. Food safety bodies around the world recognize stevia leaf extract as safe for human consumption, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)[6], Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)[7], Health Canada (HC)[8] and the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ)[9] resulting in the approval of steviasweeteners in over 100 countries today.

[1] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 1

[2] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 3, 59

[3] Maki KC, Curry LL, Reeves MS, et al. Chronic consumption of rebaudioside A, a steviol glycoside, in men and women with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Food and Chemical Toxicology 46 (2008) S47–S53

[4] Carakostas MC, Curry LL, Boileau AC, Brusick DJ. Overview: The history, technical function and safety of rebaudioside A, a naturally occurring steviol glycoside, for use in food and beverages. Food Chem Toxicol 46 (2008) S1–S10.

[5] Maki KC, Curry LL, Reeves MS, et al. Chronic consumption of rebaudioside A, a steviol glycoside, in men and women with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Food and Chemical Toxicology 46 (2008) S47–S53

[6] http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/1537. Accessed 11/9/2016.

[7]http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/jecfa_additives/docs/monograph10/additive-442-m10.pdf. Accessed 11/9/2016.

[8] http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/consult/nom-adm-0002/document-consultation-eng.php. Accessed 11/9/2016.

[9] https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/code/applications/documents/FAR_A540_Steviol_glycosides.pdf. Accessed 11/9/2016.