What is stevia?

 

The stevia plant is a small shrub that has been used as a 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 – is a great 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, tablet or granulated sweetener product (for instance, in Truvia® sweetener or Stevia in the Raw® sweetener and others). These stevia sweetener products can be found at your local grocery store here in the US.

Stevia Is Native to South America

Known botanically as “stevia rebaudiana Bertoni,” 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 the 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 Leaves are Harvested When a Bloom Appears

Stevia plants typically begin their life in a greenhouse. When the plant reaches three- to four-inches tall, it is transplanted to the field. When small white flowers appear, 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, and drying, resulting in a crystalized stevia leaf extract.

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 areas that are between 20 and 40 degrees north or south of the equator. At those latitudes, the plant generally 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!

Stevia is primarily grown in areas 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 a Stevia Plant 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 of potting mix is dry to the touch. While it’s possible to grown your own stevia plant, homemade stevia sweeteners are not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in accordance with US FDA requirements.

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

Stevia leaf extract is a highly-potent natural sweetener that can be anywhere from 200-350 times sweeter than sugar. You need to add only very small amounts to achieve the level of sweetness you expect with sugar. That’s part of why stevia leaf extract has no calories—you need very little.

Stevia leaf extract also has no calories due to the way your body metabolizes the sweetener—unlike sugar, stevia leaf extract quickly passes through your digestive tract and is eliminated without being broken down for calories.[1] This can be a benefit for people trying to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle.

[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 leaf extract 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 leaf extract as an ingredient.

Baking with Stevia Leaf Extract 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 leaf extract is different in that it does not brown in the same way – as a result, baked goods with stevia leaf extract may result in a lighter color.

Stevia Blends Help with Baking

Commercial manufacturers offer stevia-sweetened products designed for baking. These blends often contain stevia leaf extract along with some amount 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 the stevia plant grown?

The stevia plant is a relatively simple 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 majority of stevia production is in China.

Stevia plants are often grown to the point of a sapling (for speed and consistent sweetness[1]) in a greenhouse and then transplanted to fields in the late spring. Early studies of the plant noted that transplanting in April or May allowed for two harvests (summer and autumn), which increased yields. [2]

Stevia Leaves are Harvested When a Bloom Appears

Stevia fields are often cultivated by small scale farmers. Harvesting takes place just as blooms appear for maximum sweetness. The leaves are then dried and made into a purified stevia leaf extract. The food grade stevia leaf extract is then often 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?

Sugar is often recognized as the gold standard for measuring 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 made and which particular stevia plant it came from (the genus Stevia has 154 members[3]).

Because of the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract, commercial manufacturers generally blend it with other 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 leaf extract with other sweeteners.

Several commercial manufacturers market stevia-sweetened products that contain other sweeteners (notably, sugar) for specific purposes, like baking. These combined sweeteners opt for a reduction in sugar versus elimination of sugar.

Other high-potency sweeteners (such as monk fruit) and bulk, zero-calorie sweeteners (like erythritol) are combined with stevia leaf extract in some stevia-based sweeteners to help evenly disperse the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract and enhance taste.

Where can I buy stevia?

High purity stevia leaf extract is generally recognized as safe in accordance with US FDA requirements. Tabletop sweeteners that use stevia leaf extract are available through most major retail grocers as well as through online distributors in the US. Crude stevia is not generally recognized as safe in accordance with US FDA requirements.

What types of stevia can I buy?

Stevia leaf extract is available commercially as an ingredient in sweetener products that come in a variety of forms: in a small sachet or packet, tablets or liquid. Depending on the part of the world in which 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 store shelves may also contain stevia leaf extract as an ingredient, such as Coke Life® beverage.

In North America, packets are commonly available in restaurants and for individual use in homes. These packets typically contain the sweetness equivalent of one or two teaspoons of sugar.

While packets are most common in North America, stevia tablets tend to be more popular in Europe. Stevia liquids tends to be more popular in South America.

While other forms for stevia – such as crude stevia – may be found at alternative food stores and online, crude stevia is not generally recognized as safe in accordance with US FDA requirements.

What is stevia rebaudiana?

Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is the botanical name for the herb known more generally known as “stevia”. Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni grows leaves that, when processed into stevia leaf extract, 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 zero-calorie stevia plant leaves. Stevia leaf extract is not to be confused with “crude stevia,” which does not have the same qualities as stevia leaf extract. “Crude stevia” is a more raw form of stevia that is often comprised of 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 GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) in accordance with US FDA requirements.[1]

Stevia Leaf Extract is Comprised of 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 produce stevia leaf extract pull in great-tasting components from the stevia leaves—such as rebaudioside 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 Generally Recognized as 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 is GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) in accordance with US FDA requirements. Crude stevia, on the other hand, has not been approved by the US FDA and is not similarly generally recognized as safe.[2] Stevia leaf extract has also approved by a variety of national food safety bodies[3] and supported by organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.[4]

[1] http://www.fda.gov/ucm/groups/fdagov-public/@fdagov-foods-gen/documents/document/ucm269137.pdf ]. Accessed 11/9/2016.
[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/jecfa_additives/docs/monograph10/additive-442-m10.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 sweeter than sugar, so you need use only a very small amount to achieve the equivalent sweetness of sugar.

In most stevia-based sweeteners, a very small amount of stevia leaf extract is combined with other ingredients, like erythritol, maltodextrin or dextrose, to provide a look and feel similar to sugar. These ingredients help evenly disperse the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract so the finished product can more easily be substituted for sugar.

Stevia vs Sugar: What is the conversion factor?

Stevia leaf extract is sweeter than sugar—generally 200-350 times as sweet. As such, a very small amount of stevia leaf extract can deliver a sweetness equivalent to sugar. To help balance out the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract, manufacturers of stevia-based sweeteners typically combine a small amount of stevia leaf extract with other ingredients such as erythritol or dextrose. The resulting products are much easier to substitute for sugar, making every day sweetening with less sugar a simple matter.

Each Stevia-Based Sweetener Converts Differently

Many manufacturers formulate their stevia-based sweeteners to equal in sweetness a recognized quantity of sugar. A quick glance through the information provided by several stevia-based sweetener manufacturers shows 1 teaspoon of sugar may be the equivalent of anywhere from 1/8 teaspoon to ½ teaspoon of the requisite 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 teaspoons of the requisite baking blend.

Resources are Available for Easy Conversion

A quick 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.

Here is conversion information for four 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?

Preparing stevia leaf extract for commercial use on a larger scale requires processing. This processing allows stevia-based sweetener manufacturers to develop stevia leaf extract that has a higher level of purity and a better overall taste profile.

Stevia Leaf Extract is Processed into a User-Friendly Form

Commercial producers of stevia-based sweeteners want their products to be as easy to use as possible. Because stevia leaf extract is 200-350 times sweeter than sugar, only a very small amount is needed in a stevia-based sweetener. Stevia leaf extract is typically blended with other ingredients like erythritol or dextrose to help balance out its intense sweetness, and to take on a more user-friendly format. Processing is required to produce stevia-based sweeteners in these resulting formats (powders, granules, tablets) that people like to use in foods and beverages.

Stevia Leaf Extract is Processed for Purity

Another reason stevia leaf extract is typically processed is to achieve the kind of purity demanded by food-grade ingredients. Many parts of the stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant are sweet, but some components have bitter taste profiles. The best-tasting parts—such as rebaudioside A—make up the stevia leaf extract that is used by most commercial manufacturers.

What is the shelf life of stevia?

The shelf life of stevia-based sweeteners generally depends on the product’s form. For instance, a granular form may have a different shelf-life than a liquid form, which may also be different from the shelf life of a baking blend. Below are a few examples:

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

Each stevia-based sweetener brand provides recommended shelf life for their products, which could extend beyond three years from the date of manufacture. Contact the brand for more specific information.

What is the difference between granular stevia-based sweeteners vs. liquid stevia-based sweeteners?

It really comes down to personal preference, as both sweetener formats can be used for the same purposes. Some would like their sweetener to resemble the look and feel of sugar. For others, a liquid is easiest to use to sweeten a cup of coffee or an iced tea. The fact is that stevia-based sweeteners can come in many forms:

  • Powder
  • Granular
  • Tablets
  • Liquid

Some forms lend themselves to bulk purchase and large-volume use, while others are meant more for people interested in single-use. The forms of stevia-based sweeteners will also vary based on local markets. For instance, European markets may prefer tablets to powder or granular forms, while South American markets may prefer a liquid form.

Why is fructose in some stevia-based sweeteners?

Stevia leaf extract, comprised of the best-tasting, purified parts of the stevia plant and commonly used in stevia-based sweeteners, is a high-intensity sweetener that is 200-350 times sweeter than sugar.[1] Manufacturers of stevia-based sweeteners typically add other ingredients to help balance out the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract. These additional ingredients can help give the resulting stevia-based sweeteners a similar look, feel, weight and volume as sugar—making the sweeteners easier to use. They can also help provide qualities that enhance the product to the point where it tastes very similar to sugar.

Fructose is an example of an ingredient some manufacturers use to enhance the taste of stevia-based sweeteners and help balance out the intense sweetness of stevia leaf extract. While dextrose or erythritol tend to be more commonly used ingredients in stevia-based sweeteners, fructose is another ingredient that can complement the flavor profile of high-potency sweeteners like stevia leaf extract.

All in all, some manufacturers of stevia-based sweeteners add ingredients to enhance the taste and look of their product. It’s really up to each individual—and each unique taste palate—to decide which stevia-based sweetener tastes better to them.

[1] 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