Stevia is a perennial shrub native to the northern regions of South America but is now cultivated commercially in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Central America, the United States, Israel, Thailand, and China. The leaves of the stevia plant contain several chemical substances called glycosides, which have a sweet taste, but do not provide any calories. The major glycoside is known as stevioside and is one of the main sweeteners used in both Japan and Korea. Stevia is now used by over 40 of the Japanese market. Even international food companies like Coca Cola and Beatrice foods, convinced of its safety, use stevia extracts to sweeten foods for sale in markets outside the United States in such countries including Japan, Brazil, and other countries where it is also approved. Stevia was first discovered by Europeans when Spanish Conquistadors sent word to Spain that natives of South America used stevia to sweeten herbal teas.
The most important use of stevia is its ability to replace saccharine. Stevia has many advantages over saccharine, primarily the following:
- It is not toxic; rather it is healthy, as shown by long experience and according to a number of studies.
- It is a very powerful sweetener.
- It can be employed directly in its natural state, without a lot of processing required.
- It is much less expensive than saccharine.
Unfortunately, stevia's low price tag is not necessarily a redeeming feature in the eyes of many businesses. Non-caloric sweeteners are a big business in the United States, as are caloric sweeteners like sugar and the sugar-alcohols sorbital, mannitol, and xylitol. It is small wonder that the large U.S. based sweetener companies do not want the natural, inexpensive, and non-patentable stevia approved for use in the U.S. For this reason we believe that stevia as a nutritional supplement and sweetener has gained almost global acceptance with exception of the United States.