I first heard about Stevia 12 years ago. A Belgian professor (Jan Geuns)at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, introduced Stevia in 1997 to the Benelux countries. Everyone was very enthusiastic about it, but not long after, the plant was banned as well as the products made of Stevia. There were rumours that it was banned because of the competition it would bring to the sugar industry and agriculture (sugar beet and sugar cane) Who knows? It took 13 years before the EU in 2009 allowed products derived from the Stevia plant to be sold. Just a week ago when I was at the chemist in Barjol, I saw a sweetener dispenser with tablets made from the Stevia plant, being sold at the counter.
Full name of the plant is Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, Bertoni being the name of the botanist who first described it in 1899. The plant grows in the northern part of South America, especially in Paraguay and Brasil. The first Europeans who came across the plant were the Spanish conquestadors in the 15th century, they saw the Guaranay Indians using the leaves of the Stevia plant to sweeten their drinks.
So for a long time it was known that the leaves contained a very sweet substance, but science was not advanced enough to analyse the plant. In 1934 for the first time, chemists were able to crystallize the sweet substance (Stevioside) in the plant.
During the second World War there was a renewed interest in Stevia as there was a shortage of sugar beet for the sugar industry, but the knowledge to turn it into a industrial success was not available at the time.
In 1970 the Japanese put lots of restrictions on products containing artificial sugar. Because of these restrictions they started looking for alternatives and the interest in Stevia was rekindled. Nowadays they are the largest consumers of Stevia products in the world. The commercial production takes place in Paraguay, Uruguay, U.S., Israel, Thailand and China.
Why use Stevia:
It is a 100% natural product.
Stevioside (the sweet substance in the plant) contains no calories.
The leaves can be used in their natural form or can be dried and used.
As it is so much sweeter than sugar, only small quantities are necessary.
The plant is not toxic.
The leaves as well as the plants extracts can be cooked. It is stabile up to 200 degrees C.
There is no bitter after taste compared to the artificial sweeteners.
It is ideal for diabetics 2, as it seems to lower the blood sugar level, but not in someone whose sugar levels are normal. It seems to have a sugar regulating function.
How to look after a Stevia plant, After you've bought a Stevia plant, repot it with normal compost. Keep the soil moist, not wet. Cutting down the main stem, encourages new shoots to grow. The plant can be kept outside during the frost free months, in the winter the window sill in the kitchen or anywhere were the air is not too dry would be suitable. The plant can be harvested twice a year. When harvesting make sure you leave the bottom layer of leaves on the plant. Each plant produces approx. 20 grams of dried leaves per harvest, which is equivalent to 1 kg sugar. After the first harvest, repot the plant in a 25cm diameter pot, again with normal compost, add 1/2 a osmocote tablet. This is enough manure for 9 months.
When you are taking leaves of the stem, be careful not to damage the leaf buds. Add the leaves to your cup of tea or any dish that requires sugar. The leaves can be dried by putting them in a coffee filter bag, staple it closed and put it in the microwave at 800 watt for 2 mins. You can pulverise them in a coffee grinder.
Stevia products are sold in health shops or chemists, i.e. in syrup form, as crystallized sugar, in pill dispensers and in slimming products.
Bibliography: Professor Jan Geuns, Campuskrant, 29 January 1998