The Stevia Dilemma
The Stevia Dilemma
(about a 12 minute read)
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni[note]Stevia is a genus (group of related plants) of about 240 species of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), native to subtropical and tropical regions from western North America to South America. Only one of them—the one that the Guarani call ka’a he’e—is sweet.
A Swiss scientist named Moises Bertoni was the first western scientist to identify the plant in 1887. Soon afterwards, a Paraguayan chemist Olidio Rebaudi defined its chemical composition. Thus, the name “Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni.”[/note]) is a small subtropical shrub with very sweet leaves and a complicated history. Here is some of what you might want to know before choosing if and how you'll use stevia-based sweeteners, along with tips on growing and using your own stevia plants.
This is a long story and the tips for growing and using stevia are well past the halfway mark. Please fee free to use the navigation on the left (or below if you're on a small screen) to skip past any sections that don't interest you.
I’ve been using stevia leaf powder for a while to flavor tooth cleaning powder for my children. It’s been very successful in helping me convince my family to leave the sweet, foamy stuff on the supermarket shelves.
Recently I decided I’d like to grow stevia myself and learn to use its leaves in other ways, and I set out to find out more about it.
As I’ve learned more about stevia, I’m struck by the parallels between this story and so many other examples of scientific colonialism and biopiracy. (Biopiracy is the term used when indigenous knowledge is patented for profit.)
Stevia’s original name is ka’a he’e. It’s a small wild plant that grows (or did grow) in sunny areas between grassland and dense subtropical forests in remote highlands along the border of Paraguay and Brazil.
The name ka’a he’e was given to it by the Guarani, the indigenous people of the area.
According to them, the presence of ka’a he’e originally signified a blessed location to their people, and indicated to them “the place we were intended to be.” Stevia is an important plant in the culture of the local Guarani groups. It has a key role in their rites of passage and they also use it medicinally, as well as it's obvious use as a sweetener.
Miguel Lovera, a scientist advocating for indigenous rights in Paraguay, described ka’a he’e as “a small, obscure herb with a very limited natural range.” According to him, “western scientists did not ‘discover’ the usefulness of this plant—they were introduced to it by the Guarani.”
In the early 1970s, visitors to Guarani territory were rare. The locals greeted scientists warmly and freely shared their knowledge of the ka’a he’e.
Guarani leader Luis Arce remembers Japanese scientists digging up hundreds of thousands of wild stevia plants (stevia is difficult to propagate from seed but very easy to propagate from cuttings) without so much as a “by your leave.” The plants were shipped back to Japan to establish a stevia-growing industry there.
Because of space constraints, Japan later moved its stevia growing into China. Today, China is the world’s largest stevia producer.
In 1977, global corporations began rushing to patent and commercialize stevia extracts and synthetically produced stevia glycosides (the sweet compounds in stevia).
In 2015 and 2016, the Guarani published two reports describing their efforts to earn compensation for the use of their traditional knowledge. They asked for recognition, fair compensation, and to have some of their native land returned to them. This would in turn enable them to rescue wild stevia from extinction by restoring at least some of its native habitat.
This article from 2019 described local community groups in Paraguay growing and exporting stevia, and their difficulties with poor infrastructure and lack of support for stevia cultivation compared to mega-crops such as soy, sugar cane, and beef.
A $multi-billion global industry
Steviol glycosides, the sweetening compound originally found in stevia, can be created in labs using synthetic biology.
To giant soft drink manufacturers and other companies trying to clean up their image by moving away from sugar and chemical sweeteners, this is fantastic news. Hundreds or thousands of stevia derivitives have been patented or are awaiting patents. They're commercialized under the same name as the whole herb.
These sweetening substances (still labelled as “natural”[note]In some cases, the products of synthetic biology can be legally described and labelled as “natural.”[/note]) undermine the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers[note]Stevia is grown commercially on an industrial scale in some areas, but many small family farmers also grow stevia on plots of a few acres or less. These small farmers are in a precarious position as synthesized alternatives flood onto the market under the same name, and also as industrial scale production of whole leaf products continues to expand.[/note] who depend on stevia being marketed as a whole leaf product.
Small farmers also increasingly face competition that is likely to swamp them as Big Food encourages Big Ag to establish industrial scale stevia production in developed countries.
To give you an idea of the growth of this industry, the market for stevia leaves and powders was about $347 million in 2014 and was expected to exceed $565 million by 2020.
The market for stevia-sweetened goods (drinks, candies, etc.) was $8-11 billion in 2015. Worldwide consumption of stevia was around 8,506.9 tonnes by the end of 2020.
Our sweet tooth is still getting everyone into trouble, just as it has throughout history.
I started the research for this article intending to share all about the stevia plant. Where it was from, what kind of growing conditions it likes and how to grow it, and how to use it in your kitchen to reduce your reliance on sugar or other sweeteners.
But now that I’ve learned all of the above, I’m thinking “Now what?”
What’s the ethical thing for an individual to do now?
Should we use stevia?
And if we are to use it, how can we do so in a way that expresses our respect to the people with whom it originated, as well as sidestepping the commercialization of stevia as a global commodity?
These are the kinds of questions that don’t have clear cut answers. Your answers to them might well be different to mine, which wouldn’t make them wrong.
Should you grow your own?
Stevia grows in a community garden near me. It should grow easily at our place as a year-round perennial, and I’ve decided to go ahead with planting it at our place and using it in my kitchen.
For whatever it’s worth, here’s the thought process I went through to arrive at that decision.
I have two main motives. The first is the value I see in doing everything we can to localize our food supplies. The second is my strong aversion to sugar.
Even if we would like to, it’s not now possible to return stevia to its home and remove it from the rest of the globe.
What we can do is reject stevia in any form other than its whole leaf form (either as dried leaves or as powdered dry leaves), and source those leaves with as much awareness as possible.
Or, we can grow it ourselves – one small stitch in the fabric of local food.
I know that growing it ourselves doesn’t help the Guarani return to their homeland or restore the wild stevia plant. All I can say in response to that dilemma is that it’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others in a falling airplane… we’re all in this mess together, and whatever we can do to re-localize and re-build resilience is better than wringing our hands over what we can’t do.
Every day, food is tended, harvested, transported, stored, and served up on our tables. In a very real sense, food cannot be separated from life itself. … [The] way we grow and eat food is one of the most powerful tools we have for changing our economies and society as a whole."
From "Farms of the future"
Like herbal medicine, food should be the people’s business, not corporate business.
Food is in danger of coming under the control of a handful of gigantic corporations and is increasingly being limited to a handful of major crops, while small farming communities endure staggering loss of genetic diversity in the foods they can grow.
Local food and regenerative forms of agriculture are the solution to this and multiple other crises[note]Bringing the Food Economy Home[/note]. Democracy, climate, soil health, ocean health, and biodiversity are all strengthened when we eat food grown at home or close to home[note]Even if we’re super-human and blessed with super-circumstances, very few of us can grow everything we eat. Most of us can grow very little of what we eat. Our next-best options are to source our food from close to home, or from ethical suppliers of food produced by small farming communities.[/note].
Local food systems should be based as much as possible on plants that originated in that area, but not to the exclusion of food plants that come from other areas with similar climate and conditions.
In this context, I see localization efforts as being twofold:
- to preserve and reinstate local foods and knowledge as much as possible in the areas where they originated, and in addition to that,
- to incorporate all earth-friendly knowledge and resources, regardless of where they originate, that help us serve health, wholeness, and diversity.
I don’t think we have the luxury of rejecting a plant that is not growing in its original place simply because it did not originate there, if embracing it and using it helps us build local community resilience.
My second strong motive for growing my own stevia is my distaste for sugar.
Aside from all of those issues, sugarcane is a crop that has huge—and growing—environmental and social impact.
The global market for sugar and other sugarcane derivatives is vast, and because of it’s potential as a source of biofuels and bioplastics, that market is still growing rapidly.
In 2004, WWF reported that roughly 145 million tons of sugars are produced in 121 countries each year, and that consumption is growing by around two million tonnes per year.
As a tropical crop that requires a lot of water, sugar production is particularly damaging to big river systems and equatorial rain forests.
According to WWF, sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop due to forest clearing for plantations, intensive use of water and agricultural chemicals, and the polluted wastewater discharged in the sugar production process.
The sugarcane industry is changing, slowly, in an effort to reduce its impact, but still there are many, many reasons to avoid sugar in all its forms.
(This includes thinking twice about the use of so-called “environmentally friendly” alternatives to plastics that are made from sugarcane, and the same applies to those made from corn).
How to grow stevia
If, after reading all that, you’re interested in stevia for a pot on the porch, your backyard, or your local community garden, here’s what I dug up on how to grow it.
Stevia is a perennial that grows up to 1m high and likes full sun. It can be grown as an annual in cooler areas. It’s also well-suited to growing in pots if you want to move it into shelter for the winter.
Stevia’s ideal climate, if you want to grow it outside as a perennial, is semi-humid subtropical with temperatures from 21°C to 43°C, averaging 24°C. Grown as a perennial, stevia loses its leaves in late autumn and will sometimes die back to a crown.
It does best in a fertile, well-drained soil and appreciates regular watering. It will tolerate acidity; preferred pH range is 5 - 7.5. It does not do well in hot, dry climates without regular watering and dappled shade.
Seed can be sown in spring, with a soil temperature of 20°C. Stevia seed is difficult to germinate, but starting it from cuttings is easy.
Harvesting: Tip-prune to encourage bushiness. You can snip leaves judiciously in the spring and early summer, then harvest all the leaves for drying before the plant flowers in late summer.
Dry the leaves by hanging them upside down in bunches, or in a humid climate lay the leaves on trays and dehydrate on the lowest setting of a dehydrator or in the oven with just the pilot light on.
Dried leaves can be stored as is, or ground into a fine powder to take up less space.
Which leads us to how to use it in the kitchen.
Fresh whole stevia leaves can be chewed as is for a sweet treat, or added to hot beverages, which can also then be cooled to make sweetened cool drinks.
The leaves can be dried, and can also be ground into a powder, which would be the most efficient way to store it.
Stevia leaf powder and peppermint leaf powder have turned out to be the magic combination for me to get my kids to use homemade tooth cleaning powder instead of supermarket toothpaste.
I’ve also made stevia syrup, by putting a teaspoon of stevia powder into a liter of water and bringing it to the boil, but I’ve yet to experiment with using it to reduce the honey in things like milkshakes.
Fresh stevia leaves can be used to make stevia leaf extract.
This article has another stevia leaf extract recipe and a syrup recipe, as well as more info on growing stevia.
Nutrition and medicine
The reason for the hype about stevia is that the western world thinks it has found a sweetener that’s cheap, easy to produce, and healthy.
The Guarani use stevia medicinally as an antiseptic, digestive aid, astringent, and anti-parasitic. They also believe that stevia’s sweetness is associated with divine beneficence, and it has a central role in their rites of passage.
According to this article stevia has antioxidant, antiseptic, diuretic and healing properties. The article quotes the Global Stevia Institute’s description of stevia as a zero-calorie natural origin sweetener that can help address obesity and diabetes.
The writer of this list of Health and Nutrition Benefits of Stevia shares a long list of benefits of consuming stevia in its whole form.
Herbalist Isabell Shipard, in her book How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life? devotes a large section to the medicinal and nutritional qualities of stevia (in a rambling manner and with lots of information about sugar mixed in).
The most glowing descriptions of stevia’s all-around health benefits come from those who stand to profit from sales of stevia-sweetened products.
But I also found a long, sciency write-up which points out that “you can’t cheat on sweet” and says that western science hasn’t done its due diligence on stevia.
I’d say the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In its whole leaf form, I’m sure stevia is as nutritious and beneficial as any other useful herb – but that doesn’t give us a license to over-consume it.
I would use stevia in its whole-leaf form sparingly as a sweetener. I would leave medicinal use of it to the Guarani, the original holders of the traditional knowledge about how to use it.
And I would stay well away from all the strange substances sold with the name of stevia on the packet or in the ingredient list.
Whole dried stevia leaves look like dried leaves — nothing else. Powdered stevia leaves are a green powder, not white, with a faintly bitter aftertaste. (That’s one of the reasons there are so many knock-offs out there – the sweet compounds have been isolated to remove the aftertaste.)
If you can find out where the stevia leaf you buy is from so you know whether you’re supporting small farmers, even better.
References and resources
Stevia is listed in the data base at pfaf.org – Plants For a Future – Stevia.
The Indigenous Tribes Fighting to Reclaim Stevia From Coca-Cola is the article I referenced to write most of the sections on the origins and commercializtion of stevia.
Stevia: A Guarani miracle or nightmare? shares more on the history of stevia in its native place, and about its exploitation as it became a globally sought-after sweetener.
This is a story of the legal loopholes that allow biopiracy to thrive. It includes a diagram illustrating the difference between traditional use of stevia as a leaf for making tea, and a process by which crystalized steviol glycosides—pretty white crystals with no aftertaste—are produced.
Please leave a comment
Do you use stevia? Did you know it's back-story? Please tell us about it in the comments section below the endnotes.