Stevia rebaudiana is a South American plant of the Asteraceae family, which also includes sunflowers and chrysanthemums. Native to Paraguay, stevia has traditionally been used to sweeten beverages and make tea. The term "stevia" refers to the entire plant and its components, only some of which are sweet.
While the word "stevia" refers to the entire plant, for the purposes of this article, the term "stevia" will be used interchangeably to also refer to "steviol glycosides" - the sweet components isolated and purified from the stevia leaves. The plant is cultivated as a commercial crop in Japan, China, Kenya, Vietnam, India, Argentina, Colombia, Thailand, Paraguay, and Brazil. Currently, China is the leading exporter of stevia products.
Stevia provides an important role in biodiversity due to how little land is required to grow it, allowing farmers to diversify their crops. Unlike commodity crops, stevia is grown on smaller plots of land and provides supplemental income to more commonplace crops.
As stevia is intensely sweet and an extract, it typically requires only a fifth of the land and much less water to provide the same amount of sweetness as other mainstream sweeteners. For example, in Kenya, stevia is typically grown on only a third of the land, with the rest of the land being devoted to other crops.
Although it was not until the 19th century that scientists began seriously investigating stevia, the indigenous people of Paraguay were using the plant as early as the 16th century to sweeten drinks and medicines. During his studies of herbs used as sweeteners by native people, Dr Moises Santiago Bertoni, a Swiss botanist of Italian descent, is credited with having notified the world of stevia's existence.
During his studies of herbs used as sweeteners by native people, Dr Moises Santiago Bertoni, a Swiss botanist of Italian descent, is credited with having notified the world of stevia's existence.