What is stevia?

The stevia plant is a small shrub that has been used as a natural sweetener for hundreds of years. Because of its highly-potent sweetness, stevia is used as a zero-calorie sweetener in a variety of foods and drinks. The best-tasting, purified parts of the stevia plant – stevia leaf extract – have proven to be a safe alternative to sugar and it does not raise blood glucose levels, a concern for people with diabetes. Stevia leaf extract is 200-350 times sweeter than sugar—which explains why you often see it combined with other ingredients that help evenly disperse sweetness in the form of a liquid, powder or granulated sweetener product (for instance, in Truvia® or Stevia in the Raw® and others). Combining stevia leaf extract with other ingredients helps improve sweetener performance in foods and drinks. The zero-calorie sweetness extracted from the stevia leaf and used in many commercial, tabletop sweeteners that you can find at your local grocery store has been recognized as safe by the FDA.

Stevia Is Native to South America

Known botanically as “stevia rebaudiana,” the plant is native to Paraguay, but also grows in other tropical and sub-tropical locations. Today the stevia plant is grown commercially in Asia, Latin America, Mexico, and some parts of US and Europe where it flourishes under long hours of daylight, plenty of water and warmth. In modern use, the stevia plant leaves are harvested and processed primarily for use in stevia-based sweeteners.

Stevia Is Harvested at Peak Sweetness

Stevia plants typically start in a greenhouse as a root-cutting. When the plant reaches three- to four-inches tall, it is transplanted to the field. When small white flowers appear—the peak moment when the sweetness is available—the stevia plant is ready for harvest. After harvest, the leaves are dried. Sweetness is released from the stevia leaves by a process that involves steeping them in water, filtering and purifying.

Where does stevia grow best?

Stevia Grows Best in Tropical Conditions

Stevia grows best under tropical conditions, where sun, water and heat are plentiful. The stevia plant is native to South America—Paraguay, in particular. While it can be grown in many climates, stevia is primarily grown in lands that are between 20 and 40 degrees north or south of the equator. At those latitudes, the plant gets the 12 hours of sunshine it prefers for the production of steviol glycosides—the sweet components—in the plant’s leaves.[1] Stevia can be grown (and is grown) by individuals around the world, though it is difficult to duplicate the hours of sunshine and other conditions the plant prefers. Today, China grows much of the stevia used commercially around the world.

[1] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 201
Can I grow my own stevia plant?

Sure—you can grow you own stevia plant!

Where Stevia Usually Grows

Stevia is primarily grown in lands that are between 20 and 40 degrees north or south of the equator. At those latitudes, the plant gets the 12 hours of sunshine it prefers for the production of steviol glycosides—the sweet components—in the plant’s leaves.[1]

Start Growing Stevia with a Sapling

Commercial stevia plants typically start life in a greenhouse before being transplanted to a field. If you want to grow your own stevia plant, purchase a sapling locally or online. If growing in a container, give the plant a 12- or 14-inch container filled with a good potting mix. Position the plant in full sun and water the plant when the top inch potting mix is dry to the touch. Harvest the leaves just as the flowers bud for the most sweetness. Dry the leaves and then crush them into a powder to store and to use.

Difficult to Mimic Ideal Stevia Growing Conditions

While it is possible to grow stevia, the process is difficult because of the growing conditions the plant prefers. Many people find that sweetening with stevia you produce on your own varies in consistency and performance when compared to using a stevia-based sweetener.

[1] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 201
How many calories are in stevia?

Stevia has Zero Calories—For Real

Stevia is a highly-potent natural sweetener, significantly sweeter than sugar. Add only very small amounts to achieve the level of sweetness you expect with sugar. That’s part of why stevia has no calories—you need very little. Stevia also has no calories due to the way your body metabolizes the sweetener—unlike sugar, stevia quickly passes through your digestive tract and is eliminated without being broken down for calories.[1] It’s a win-win for sweet-enthusiasts trying to maintain their weight.

[1] 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.
Will stevia change the color in my food?

Using stevia as an ingredient will generally have no effect on the color of your food or beverage. The one exception to this rule is baking, where you may notice color and performance differences when using stevia as an ingredient.

Baking with Stevia May Lighten Food

We love the way our baked goods brown along the top. That’s partly because of the way sugar in our recipes caramelizes when heated.[1] Using sugar in recipes also produces a familiar texture, weight, and chewiness. Stevia is different in that it does not brown in the same way – as a result, baked goods with stevia may result in a lighter color.

Stevia Blends Help Solve Baking Differences

Commercial manufacturers of stevia offer stevia-sweetened products designed for baking. These blends tend to contain the stevia leaf extract along with some combination of sugar. The result is a blend that helps reduce calories while allowing the familiar look and taste of baked goods that use sugar as an ingredient.

[1] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 185
How is stevia grown?

Stevia is a relatively simple plant to grow: give it plenty of sun, warmth and water and it does the hard work.

Stevia Starts as a Sapling

Commercial stevia-growing operations are located around the world, but the center of stevia growing tends to be in China. Stevia plants are often grown to the point of a sapling (for speed and consistent sweetness[1]) in a hothouse and then transplanted to fields in April or May. Early studies of the plant noted that transplanting in April or May allowed for two harvests (summer and autumn), which increased the yield. [2]

Stevia leaves are harvested when the bloom appears

Stevia fields are often cultivated by small scale farmers. Harvesting takes place just as the blooms appear, for maximum sweetness. The leaves are then dried and made into a purified extract while still in the country of origin. The food grade stevia leaf extract is then sold and exported to manufacturers who use it as the primary sweetening ingredient in stevia-based sweeteners.

[1] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 75
[2] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 10
How sweet is stevia?

Stevia is very sweet

Sugar is often recognized as the gold standard for sweetness – most alternative sweeteners are measured against sugar to see how they compare. Stevia leaf extract, comprised of the best-tasting, purified parts of stevia plant, is estimated to be anywhere from 200 to 350 times the sweetness of sugar. [1] [2] That range in sweetness depends on how the stevia leaf extract was processed and which particular stevia plant it came from (the genus Stevia has 154 members[3]).

Intense Stevia is Blended for Easy Use

Because of the intense sweetness of stevia, commercial manufacturers blend stevia leaf extract with bulking ingredients (for instance, erythritol, dextrose or maltodextrin) to more evenly distribute and balance the sweetness. These blended products make stevia leaf extract very easy for people to use in foods, beverages, and cooking.

[1] Madan S, Ahmad S Sing GN, et al. Stevia rebaudiana (Bert.) Bertoni – A Review. Indian Journal of Natural Products and Resources, 2010, 1(3), 272
[2] Prakash I, DuBois GE, Clos JF, Wilkens KL, Fosdick LE. Development of rebiana, a natural, non-caloric sweetener. Food and Chemical Toxicology 46 (2008) S75
[3] Madan S, Ahmad S Sing GN, et al. Steveia rebaoudiana (Bert.) Bethoni – A Review. Indian Journal of Natural Products and Resources, 2010, 1(3), 267
Can I combine stevia with other sweeteners?

Yes, you can combine stevia with other sweeteners. Several commercial stevia manufacturers market stevia-sweetened products that contain other sweeteners (notably, sugar) for specific purposes, like baking. These sweeteners may opt for a reduction in sugar versus elimination of sugar. Other high-potency sweeteners (for instance, monk fruit in the US) and bulk, zero-calorie sweeteners (like erythritol) are combined with stevia leaf extract in stevia-based sweeteners to help evenly disperse the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract. In Japan there are more than 100 formulations containing stevia sweetener blends that are commercially available.[1]  

[1] Kinghorn, AD. Stevia: The Genus Stevia (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002) 182
Where can I buy stevia?

Commercial products that use stevia leaf extract—the approved, purified, food-grade preparation of stevia—are available through most major retail grocers as well as through online distributors. Crude stevia products may be available at alternative food stores and online.      

What types of sweeteners are available for purchase?

Stevia leaf extract is available commercially as an ingredient featured in sweetener products that come in a variety of forms: in a small sachet or stevia packet, a spoon-for-spoon equivalent (available in larger containers), stevia tablets or stevia liquid. Depending on the part of the world where you live, some forms of stevia-based sweeteners are more popular than others. In addition, zero-calorie stevia-based sweeteners mixed with white or brown sugar in the form of baking blends are available to help improve performance in baked goods. Other products on grocery shelves may also contain stevia leaf extract as an ingredient, such as Coke Life®. In North America, small stevia packets are commonly available in restaurants and for individual use in homes. These packets typically contain the equivalent of one or two teaspoons of sugar. While packets of sweetener are common in food service in North America and Europe, stevia tablets tend to be more popular in Europe. Stevia liquids tends to be more popular in South America.[1] Crude stevia products may be available at alternative food stores and online.

¹[FOR REVIEWERS ONLY: PRIVATE CONVERSATION: JOHN FRY, 9/1/2016]
What is stevia rebaudiana?

Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) is the botanical name for the herb known more generally as, simply, stevia. Stevia rebaudiana grows leaves that produce the sweet-tasting, zero-calorie sweetener that serves as an alternative to sugar. The sweet constituent elements of the plant were brought to the attention of the scientific world by an Italian-Swiss botanist named Dr. Moises S. Bertoni, when he published a paper about the plant in 1905.

What is stevia leaf extract?

Stevia leaf extract is the purified form of the stevia plant. Stevia leaf extract is not to be confused with “stevia leaves” or “crude stevia,” neither of which have the same qualities as stevia leaf extract. “Stevia leaves” are the leaves of the stevia plant that have been crushed or otherwise processed. “Crude stevia” is another more raw form of stevia which may contain ground up stevia leaves. “Stevia leaf extract,” on the other hand, is a more purified form of stevia that is 95% pure rebaudiana A or other steviol glycosides and is recognized as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the FDA.[1]

Stevia Leaf Extract includes the Best Tasting Parts of the Stevia Plant

Stevia leaf extract appears on ingredient labels in the US to indicate that the stevia ingredient is of commercial food grade, which is at least 95% pure. Crude stevia has many components (over 40 unique steviol glycosides, or sweet components) each with its own particular taste. The purifying processes that produces stevia leaf extract pulls in great-tasting components from the stevia leaves—primarily rebaudioside A, or Reb A—while leaving behind the components that interfere with the sweet taste. Stevia leaf extract includes the best-tasting part of the stevia leaf (versus all the parts found in a stevia leaf or crude stevia) to achieve a more balanced and consistent taste.

Stevia Leaf Extract is Approved and Safe

Stevia leaf extract is a highly purified form of the stevia plant. As such, it has gone through rigorous scientific and clinical testing to ensure it is safe for human consumption and for commercial use. Stevia leaf extract falls under the United States FDA GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) designation. Crude stevia, on the other hand, has not been approved by theFDA).[2] Stevia leaf extract has also approved by a variety of national food safety bodies and supported by organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.[3]

[1] http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fdcc/?set=GRASNotices&id=555&sort=GRN_No&order=DESC&startrow=1&type=basic&search=STEVIA Accessed 9/12/2016.
[2] Fitch C, Keim KS. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 May;112(5):739-58. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.03.009. Epub 2012 Apr 25.
[3] http://www.fda.gov/ucm/groups/fdagov-public/@fdagov-foods-gen/documents/document/ucm269137.pdf ]. Accessed 11/9/2016.
Why is only a small amount of stevia leaf extract required in stevia-based sweeteners?

Stevia leaf extract is 200-350 times the sweetness of sugar, so you need use only a little to get the sweetness you expect with sugar. A very small amount of stevia leaf extract is required to achieve an equivalent sweetness to sugar. In most stevia-based sweeteners, very small amounts of stevia are combined with other ingredients, like erythritol, maltodextrin or dextrose, to provide a look and feel similar to sugar. These additional natural ingredients also help evenly disperse the sweetness of stevia leaf extract so the experience of using the product is even more like using sugar.

Can I make my own stevia leaf extract?

Yes, you can make your own stevia extract. All it takes is fresh stevia leaves, liquid, and a bit of time. The resulting stevia extract will not be as pure as food-grade stevia leaf extract, nor will taste or perform like stevia leaf extract, but it can certainly sweeten your cooking, baking and beverages. It’s actually interesting to make your own extract as an experiment in seeing how very sweet stevia is. Recommendations on ways of extracting will vary, so be sure to experiment with different methods. Here are some general guidelines for making your own stevia extract:

Rinse and Dry Fresh Stevia Leaves

Purchase stevia leaves or harvest leaves from your own stevia plant in late summer or early autumn, when the blossoms appear. Rinse the leaves and remove them from the stem. Allow the leaves to dry for 12 hours.

Soak and Store Stevia Extract

The leaves can be chopped with a knife, crushed (by hand) or ground (using a coffee grinder). Some prefer larger leaf parts for easy filtering later. Others prefer a powder and do not filter the resulting liquid. Combine the chopped/crushed/ground leaves with water and let soak. Some prefer an alcohol (for example, vodka) to water for the soaking phase, arguing it results in a sweeter stevia syrup. Allow the stevia/water combination to soak for 24 hours and then strain out the stevia. Store the liquid in the refrigerator for a few weeks. An additional step is to cook the resulting extract on the stove top without bringing to a boil. Cooking for roughly 20 minutes allows the extract to thicken. After it has cooled, pour the liquid into a bottle with a dropper, as only a drop or so is needed to sweeten foods.

Your Stevia Experiment May Not Taste Right

Making your own stevia sweetener can be an entertaining learning experience, though it is time-consuming and the results can be less than satisfying. The resulting sweetener can contain bitter off-flavors when compared to food grade stevia leaf extract that uses a more advanced purification process that ensures more consistent flavors.

Stevia vs Sugar: What is the conversion factor?

Stevia is sweeter than sugar—generally several hundred times as sweet. In short, a very small amount of stevia can deliver a sweetness equivalent to sugar. Manufacturers of commercial stevia-based sweeteners formulate their products so conversion to a sugar equivalent is easier, making cooking and baking and everyday sweetening a simple matter.

Each Stevia-Based Sweetener Converts Differently

Each manufacturer has formulated their product to equal a recognized quantity of sugar. A quick glance through the information provided by different stevia-based sweetener manufactures shows 1 teaspoon of sugar may be the equivalent of anywhere from 1/8 teaspoon to ½ teaspoon of the stevia-based sweetener. In baking blends (a mix of a zero-calorie stevia-based sweetener and sugar for better results in baked goods), 1 tablespoon sugar may be the equivalent of anywhere from 1 to 1.5 teaspoon of the baking blend.

Stevia-Based Sweeteners are Easily Converted

A search for “conversion chart” and the name of your preferred sweetener brand will quickly give you the conversion numbers you need for successful cooking, baking and everyday sweetening. Many manufacturers also make conversion calculators available. Here is conversion information for three popular stevia-based sweeteners:

[1] Trademark of Cumberland Packing Corp.

[2] Trademark of United American Industries, Inc.

[3] Trademark of Cargill, Inc.

[4] Trademark of Whole Earth Sweetener Co., LLC

 

Is stevia leaf extract processed?

Yes and no—it depends on how the stevia leaf extract is made. Stevia extract made using crude stevia is relatively straightforward to work with informally and on a small scale which includes some processing. On the other hand, preparing stevia leaf extract for commercial use on a larger scale requires processing. This processing allows stevia manufacturers to develop stevia leaf extract that has a higher level of purity and a better overall taste profile.

Stevia is Processed into a User-Friend Form

Commercial producers of stevia-based sweeteners want their products to be as easy to use as possible. Because stevia leaf extract is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, very small amounts are used to produce the sweetener. Stevia leaf extract is typically combined and blended with other natural ingredients into a form people can easily cook, bake or use with common household measuring tools. Processing is also required to produce the sugar-like powders, granules or liquids people like to use in foods and beverages.

Stevia is Processed for Purity

Another reason for stevia leaf extract is typically processed is to achieve the kind of purity demanded by food-grade ingredients. Many parts of the stevia rebaudiana Bertoli plant are sweet, but some components have bitter taste profiles. The very sweet parts—e. g. Rebaudioside A—make up the bulk of the pure stevia leaf extract that is used by most commercial manufacturers.

Is processed stevia leaf extract natural?

Stevia leaf extract is also processed to consistently produce the purified, food-grade stevia-based sweetener that the FDA and other governing bodies have permitted. But can you call a processed food “natural”? Some argue yes in the case of stevia leaf extract because the final product contains natural ingredients. Others argue any level of processing should cause the “natural” claim to be stripped from stevia leaf extract. The only accurate conclusion that can be agreed upon by everyone is that the definition of “natural” can vary – how do you define “natural”?

What is the shelf life of stevia?

The shelf life of stevia-based sweeteners depends on the manufacturer’s chosen form. For instance, a granular formulation may have a different shelf-life than a liquid form, which may also be different from a baking blend (Table 1). Table 1, Shelf-life for typical stevia-based sweeteners.

Product Shelf Life
Stevia In The Raw® Packets Approximately four years
Truvia® Natural Sweetener About three years from date of manufacture

Each commercial manufacturer of stevia-based sweeteners will provide a recommended shelf life for their products, which could extend beyond three years from the date of manufacture. Contact the manufacturer for more specific information.

Difference between granular stevia-based sweeteners vs. liquid stevia-based sweeteners?

How do you prefer your stevia-based sweetener? It’s first a question of convenience: some prefer the look and feel of sugar and want their sweetener to act like sugar. For others, a liquid is easiest to use to flavor a cup of coffee or an iced tea. The fact is that stevia-based sweeteners can come in many forms:

  • Powder in a sachet (typically you find sachets or packets in restaurants)
  • Granular/Coarse powder in bulk
  • Spoon-for-spoon type bulk
  • Tablets
  • Liquid

Some forms lend themselves to bulk purchase and large-volume use, while others are for people interested in single-use. The forms of stevia-based sweeteners will also vary based on local markets. For instance, European markets prefer tablets to the sachet or packet, while South American markets may prefer a liquid form. But convenience is not the only question that decides which form of stevia-based sweetener to buy—especially with baking. Cakes and cookies along with many other baking creations in your recipe book require a particular chemistry for success. The well-baked cookie has a precise color partly because of the way sugar responds to heat. That color of that baked cookie, or the structure of a cake or pie, signal a well-baked treat. Many stevia-based sweetener manufacturers help achieve those colors and structures by offering baking blends in granulated form. The genius of a stevia-based baking blend is that it lets you have the baking experience you know while also cutting the sugar in the recipe.