What is Stevia?
In its natural form, Stevia Rebaudiana is a leafy green plant found in Paraguay and Brazil. The glycosides in its leaves, including up to 10% Stevioside, account for its incredible sweetness, making it unique among the nearly 300 species of Stevia plants. It has been used in those regions for hundreds of years as a sweetener and also as a treatment for burns, colic and stomach problems. Stevia is intensely sweet, has zero calories and has a glycemic index value of 0 which makes it ideal for diabetics compared to other mainstream sweeteners such as sugar that has a Glycemic index value of 80.
The Stevia plant contains several sweet-tasting compounds known as steviol glycosides, which have been estimated to be 300 times as sweet as sugar.
The Stevia plant (Stevia Rebaudiana), belongs to the Compositae (sunflower family of plants) and is one of only two of the approximately 300 members of the genus Stevia producing sweet steviol glycosides. Originating in the South American wild, it could be found growing in semi-arid habitat ranging from grassland to scrub forest to mountain terrain. The plant made its way to Pacific Rim countries where in recent decades it became cultivated domestically, used in its raw leaf form and now is commercially processed into sweetener.
Stevia has a long history of use as a sweetener, due to the presence of sweet crystalline glycosides called Stevioside and Rebaudioside A which are 300 times sweeter than sucrose. Stevioside and Rebaudioside A are non-caloric, non-fermentable, non-discoloring, heat stable at 95°C and have a lengthy shelf life. The product can be added to cooked/baked goods or processed foods and beverages. In the Pacific Rim countries, Korea, Japan and China, Stevia is regularly used in preparation of food and pharmaceutical products.
Stevia was discovered in 1899 by Swiss botanist Moisés Santiago Bertoni, while conducting research in eastern Paraguay. It wasn’t until 1931, when two French chemists isolated the glycoside compounds that give Stevia its sweet taste, that it was considered for use as a natural sugar substitute.
In the early 1970s, the Japanese began cultivating Stevia as an alternative to artificial sweeteners and have been producing Stevia sweeteners commercially since 1977. The plant’s leaves, as well as the aqueous extract of the leaves and purified steviosides, were developed as sweeteners. The Japanese have been using Stevia in food products and soft drinks including Coca Cola, and for table use. Stevia accounts for 40 percent of the Japanese sweetener market, making Japan the largest consumer of Stevia.
In the mid-1980s, Stevia began to become popular in U.S. natural foods and health food industries. As a non-caloric natural sweetener for teas and weight-loss blends. Today it is used in hundreds of food and beverage products and is taking over the sweetener category from major competitors, Equal and Sweet N’Low.
Stevia hit the U.S. sweetener market in 2008 under brand names like Truvia and Stevia in the Raw (made by the manufacturer of Sweet’N Low). It has been used to sweeten specialty drinks like Zevia for years. Now major beverage companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are banking on Stevia as the perfect natural
sweetener solution for a calorie-conscious consumer base that is also increasingly concerned with natural ingredients4.
Uses as a Sweetener
Stevia was first used as a pre-packaged replacement for sugar and artificial sweeteners. It has since been used in various food products, including the Japanese sugar-free versions of Wrigley’s gums, Beatrice Foods yogurts and even Diet Coke. It has also been used in Japanese style pickles, dried seafood, fish meat products, vegetables and seafood boiled down with soy sauce, confectioneries and a host of other products.
- Carbonated Soft Drinks
- Flavored Vitamin Water
- Energy and Sports Drinks
- Fruit Juices and Drinks
- Bottled and Canned Tea
- Dry Beverage Mixes
Stevia and Soda Beverages
Coca-Cola Life is a product of Coca Cola launched in Argentina in June 20135, and in Chile in November of that year. It is the first version of the soft drink to be produced with Stevia and sugar as sweeteners. Coca-Cola Life has recently been launched in the USA, Mexico and Sweden, in August and September 20146; and is undergoing trials in the UK as of August 2014. Stevia leaf extract is a key ingredient in 45+ products across Coca Cola’s portfolio in over 15 countries.
Other Stevia-sweetened soda beverage products include: Dr. Pepper, 7Up and Canada Dry in development.
As news keeps piling in about the negative effects of consuming too much sugar, the beverage industry looks for a new sugar substitute to stem declining sales. Things may have gone from bad to worse for the industry when a new report came out that said there are risks associated with consuming even moderate amounts of sugar. A new Centers for Disease Control study concluded that just one 12-ounce can of soda per day adds enough sugar to boost the odds of developing heart disease by one-third.
In response, people are looking for a sugar free cola and Stevia promises to be the response for Coca Cola with its new beverage launch.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed the import of Stevia in 1995, clearing the way for the sweetener to be used as a dietary supplement. After years of further research, the FDA added Stevia Rebaudioside A to the list of food additives “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) in December 2008. Stevia was then allowed to be added to te4as, flavored water, sports drinks as well as soft drinks, food and candy products.
STEVIALIFE SWEETENERS LTD grows Stevia in Rwanda, East Africa. The climate and soil conditions in this area are perfect for cultivating this sweet plant.
Stevia is grown best in environments with long days of sunshine. It is native to semi-humid, sub-tropical climates where temperatures typically range from -6°C to 43°C. While tolerant of mild frost, hard frosts will kill the roots of the plant. It is a perennial plant that can be harvested several times a year if grown in an optimal environment such as Rwanda.
Stevia producers use conventional breeding techniques to increase the sweet compounds found in the leaves of the plant. Stevia plants are not genetically modified organisms (non-GMO).
Stevia farming provides a profitable crop for thousands of independent farmers of varying scales in Asia, South America, and Africa. Stevia is not replacing food crops, but is being cultivated as a cash crop on smaller plots of farmlands in addition to food crops for added income.
Time of harvesting depends on variety and the growing season. Generally, harvesting occurs in mid to late September when plants are 40-60 cm in height. Shorter days induce flowering. Optimum yield (biomass), and stevioside quality and quantity are best just prior to flowering.
Drying of the woody stems and soft green leaf material is completed immediately after harvesting utilizing a drying wagon or a kiln. Depending on weather conditions and density of loading, it generally takes 24 to 48 hours to dry Stevia at 40°C to 50°C. An estimated 21,500 kg/ha of green weight is dried down to 6,000 kg/ha of dry weight.
Dry leaves are stored in plastic lined cardboard boxes, sealed, strapped and labelled for further processing.
Once Stevia leaves are picked, separated from their stems and dried on the farm, they are shipped to refineries. After being refined, the final product is distributed to major food and beverage companies such as Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Danone, StarBuck, CARGILL and others worldwide.