You may see seedlings of stevia plant available at your garden center. At one time, though, this plant was considered to be a form of contraband, and if you were caught growing it in your garden, the FDA would have seized your crop. Today, the stevia plant, and extracts of stevia, are available in retail outlets throughout the United States and other areas of the world.
The stevia plant is native to Paraguay, a small South American country. The Guarani Indians, indigenous peoples of Paraguay, referred to this plant as Kaa he-he, which means "sweet herb."
An Italian professor of agriculture, while working in Paraguay in the late 1800s, mistook the Kaa he-he plant as a rare and new species of the Stevia genus. He named it Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni.
During the 1900s, the stevia plant began making its way out of Paraguay. Cultivation in Japan resulted in the herb being used commercially as a substitute for sugar, a sweetener, in the 1970s. Stevia as a commercial product, however, encountered more resistance in the United States.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeled this new substitute sweetener as an unsafe food additive. That stevia was being developed for this commercial use at approximately the same time as aspartame and other chemical sugar substitutes were enjoying large U.S. market shares may lead some to believe stevia is the victim of industry influences on the FDA.
That the stevia plant also made the FDA's "import alert" list, and was subject to the search and seizure powers of the FDA fueled the perceived conspiracies surrounding this simple sweet herb that grows wild in parts of Paraguay.
In 2009, stevia was approved by the FDA and is now a commercial sweetener, taking its share of the market away from aspartame and other chemical sweeteners.
The sweetness of the leaves of the stevia is at the root of this plant's controversial history. A raw leaf plucked from the stem and chewed tastes like a piece of candy or a bit of refined sugar. The difference is the stevia plant leaf has no calories. It has no ill side effects and is less costly to cultivate than sugar cane.
The stevia plant grows in a shrub-like habit and may grow as tall as 2 feet. The leaves are a bright green and elongated with tapered sides.
Stevia is easily cultivated in warm, moist climates, needing only three to four hours of sunlight a day. It thrives in the summer months but the leaves should be harvested by fall, as the plant will likely freeze and die in lower temperatures.
The leaves may be harvested as needed throughout the summer. One leaf may be sufficient to sweeten a cup of tea. Fresh leaves may also be used in foods, such as baked beans or salad dressings.
To be used in baking, the sweetness needs to be extracted from the leaves through steeping and then concentrated. Concentrated forms of stevia for uses in cooking are commercially available, now that the FDA has deemed this herb safe.