Stevia was originally discovered more than 1,500 years ago growing in clumps of two or three plants along the edges of the rainforests of Paraguay by the native Guarani people, who were indigenous to what was then a remote land. Paraguay is in the southern center of South America and does not border an ocean. In the beginning, the natives used the leaves to freshen their breath and produce a sweet taste in their mouths. It was also used to sweeten and mellow the strong taste of yerba maté tea as well as other herbal preparations used for medicinal purposes. They also believed stevia tea would help to relieve both physical and emotional fatigue. They quickly learned about its tonic action on the stomach. A few leaves, or a teabag containing ground stevia leaves, in hot water will provide relief to an upset stomach in minutes. The natives soon learned that by cooking the leaves in water a dark, highly concentrated and mildly thickened liquid, that had a strong licoricelike flavor, was formed. It was powerfully healing both internally and topically. They found that it healed cuts or sores on the body, lips, or within the mouth. Some modern but ardent advocates even use it as a hair conditioner following a shampoo. Others have claimed that by daily applying the concentrate to skin cancers on the head that the cancers disappeared after three or four weeks. It is also highly effective in combating a sore throat. When applied directly to the skin as a facial mask it effectively tightens and softens the skin and helps to smooth out wrinkles. However, it must be washed away with soap and water after 60 minutes or so. Originally, the Guarani called the plant ka’a rirete, meaning herb or leaf like honey because of its deliciously sweet taste. Today, the Guarani and Paraguayan natives call the plant ka’a he’e, meaning herb that is sweet, or sweet herb. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded and conquered Paraguay, they found the natives using stevia leaves. They named it azucar-ca’a, or sugar herb. The priests tried to cultivate it so they could send it to Spain as special treats for the Spanish royalty and Catholic hierarchy, but failed in their attempts. Stevia would prove to be difficult to cultivate. The commercial possibilities of stevia were recognized in the last decade of the 1800s. Having first heard of the plant in 1887 and receiving his first samples a few years later, the Italian-Swiss botanist Dr. Moisés Santiago Bertoni, director of the College of Agriculture in Asunción, Paraguay, published the first-known description of stevia in “Revista de Agronomia” in 1899. He had named the plant Eupatorium rebaudianum, to honor the Paraguayan chemist Dr. Ovidio Rebaudi, who had received a specimen from Bertoni and made what was then considered to be the first “complete” chemical study of stevia leaves. He verified the teachings of the ancient Guarani medicine men; that stevia offered special health benefits for stomach and digestive problems. He also established that the compound in stevia that gives it the flavor and aroma of licorice is not the same as that found in licorice root. He published his research in “Revista de Quimica y Farmacia” in 1900. In 1901, Cecil Gossling, the British consul at Asunción, sent a sample of stevia leaves along with Bertoni’s description to the Kew Botanical Gardens, near London. In describing the sweet taste of stevia he wrote that “a few leaves of this sweet herb are sufficient to sweeten a strong cup of coffee or tea, giving it also a pleasant aromatic flavor. ”Commercial agricultural projects began in 1902, and by 1908, Paraguayan farmers were harvesting one ton per hectare (2.47 acres) of the variety known today as criolla. In that same year in Germany, P. Rasenack first isolated the sweet principle, at that time called a glucoside, in crystalline form. His research was followed by Karl Dietrich, who published his chemical analysis of stevia in “Chemische Zeitung” in 1909. In 1913, research of the “now famous stevia” continued in laboratories in Antwerp, Wiesbaden and Hamburg. As more research was conducted, it became apparent that the plant had been inappropriately classified. Bertoni redefined it as Stevia rebaudiana, a member of the Compositae family. It finally became known as Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni, to pay well-deserved homage to two doctors. The genus stevia is named after Pedro Esteve, a Spanish professor of botany, who died in 1566 and Rebaudiana to honor Dr. Rebaudi. In 1915, R. Kobert lectured in Europe on the “Sweet principles of Eupatorium and Glycyrhiza,” and in 1920 the Bulletin of the Imperial Institute included an article titled, “The Ca á-ȇhȇ Plant as a Sweetening Agent. ”In 1921, at a meeting of the Union Internationale de Chimie held in Copenhagan, Denmark, “stevioside was adoped as the name for the crystalline glucoside of Stevia rebaudiana.” Interest in stevia expanded rapidly, with the French chemists M. Bridel and R. Lavieille making a detailed examination of stevia and publishing a series of reports in 1931. They also reported on the safety of stevia in the guinea pig, rabbit, and rooster. That same year, researcher M. Pomaret joined Lavieille to demonstrate that stevioside is excreted mostly without structural modification. In 1937, E. Thomas added to the rapidly increasing sphere of knowledge concerning the properties of stevia. He gave the sweetening power of stevioside as 300 times that of sucrose and outlined the best conditions for growing Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni. Even with this compelling research, there was no strong demand in Europe or in the United States for a sugar replacement. We were not yet aware of how harmful too much refined sugar is to the human body. However, with the outbreak of World War II and the reduction in sugar availability resulting in the rationing of sugar, authorities in the United States and Great Britain began to look for a substitute. In 1941, Dr. Meiville prepared a glowing memorandum about Stevia rebaudiana for the director of the Royale Botanic Gardens, in which he presented the possibility of cultivating stevia in Britain as a substitute for imported cane sugar. He suggested methods of agriculture that would enable stevia to be grown in Britain. Among them, he suggested glass greenhouses. A similar strategy had been adopted by Napoleon during the British blockade of France in that war and led to the establishment of the sugar beet industry in France. He ordered hundreds of sugar beet processing factories to be built in France. When Napoleon fell from power, the young industry collapsed. Experiments were begun in Cornwall and Devon, England, where the equivalent of two tons of stevia per acre were shown to be possible to produce. The National Institute of Health (NIH) in the United States was researching efficient methods of extracting the sweet glycosides out of the stevia leaves. However, when World War II ended, the United States and Great Britain forgot about the stevia projects and returned to subsidizing sugar beets and sugar cane. There was no stevia industry to lobby these governments. A much more detailed report on stevia was prepared in 1945 by L.A. Gattoni and submitted to the Medical Plants Division of the Instituto Agronomico Nacional de Paraguay. He advocated the establishment of a stevioside industry in Paraguay as part of the national drive to export products from Paraguay. He believed that stevioside would become a replacement for saccharine. Gattoni was so convinced that such a project would become commercially viable that he outlined a process for commercial production of stevioside including a water-based stevia concentrate and provided a detailed cost estimate. The Paraguayan government failed to act on his proposal. Had it done so, it would have made a monumental difference in the Paraguayan economy and may have improved the health and well-being of people throughout the world by significantly reducing diabetes and obesity. However, Japan was a 100 percent importer of sugar and it wisely saw stevia as a potential new industry that could benefit the Japanese economy. Farmers needed crops to grow and the potential of a new manufacturing industry with an all-important consumer food product for the Japanese market with total production in Japan was compelling. Also it would help to balance the import/export ratio. Farmers and food scientists were sent to Paraguay to learn about stevia and in 1954, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture began to organize for the agricultural production of stevia, initially in Paraguay. Japanese farmers in Paraguay began to export stevia to Japan. They were soon joined by jubilant Paraguayan farmers who now had a market for their stevia. In 1956, the Japanese government provided the needed resources for toxicological evaluation of stevia and research commenced under the direction Prof. Hiroshi Mitsuhashi at Hokkaido University. The Japanese began taking stevia seeds and seedlings to Japan. About 50 acres of land suitable for growing stevia were selected in the warm, temperate and subtropical regions of southern Japan in Kyushu. Then plants were taken to the surrounding Asian countries of Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. South Korea and Asia were also in the stevia business. Following the work of the American NIH, scientists and the development of thin layer chromatography and gas liquid chromatography, Japanese university and corporate scientists were able to develop and patent new, more efficient methods of identifying, extracting and separating the various sweet glycosides (formerly, inappropriately called glucosides) from stevia leaves. The processes required the use of various chemicals, solvents and alcohols. The research to prove the safety of stevia and its glycosides as sweeteners followed rapidly. Japanese scientists studied acute toxicity and subacute toxicity of stevia crude extract, refined stevia extract and crude crystals. They reported no harmful effects from ingesting large amounts of stevia. Japanese scientists declared that stevia offered numerous health benefits to humans and predicted that stevia would become a major natural sweetener in the future. They determined that stevia is appropriate for use in food and drink of all kinds, including carbonated beverages, orange juice, chewing gum, frozen desserts, including ice cream and sherbets, fish pasta, salt pickles, bean paste, soy sauce, and all sorts of low-calorie foods. Completely satisfied with the research, the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare accepted the validity of the research and approved the new sweetener for use in both foods and beverages. By 1982, Stevia enjoyed a 40 percent share of the commercial sweetener market in Japan and since that time has been ingested daily by hundreds of millions of people worldwide with no harmful side effects. By the end of the 20th century, more than 1,000 scientific papers and patent applications had been produced regarding stevia. Scores of additional studies confirming the safety of stevia have been published during the first decade of the 21st century. An internet search indicates 116 new studies being published between January 2010 and March 2011. Stevia may well be the most researched food on the market today. Its safety is well documented.
Stevia was first brought to the United States from Paraguay and marketed as commercial products in 1982 by James A. May. At that time, very few people in the USA had ever heard of Stevia. He worked with Paraguayan farmers, convincing them to grow stevia, which he purchased, using the leaves in various herbal products. With permission, we quote an interesting account he relates in his book: In 1993 I met with the Paraguayan Ambassador to the United States, Juan Esteban Aguirre, in his Washington D.C. office. I had heard rumors of the following sad tale but I was not fully aware of what had taken place. Around 1989, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had met with government officials in Asunción, Paraguay. Their mission had been to persuade the Paraguayan government to stop its farmers from growing marijuana and other illicit drug-producing plants, which were being smuggled into the United States. “What can our farmers grow for a cash crop?” the Paraguayan officials had asked. “They have to earn a living by selling their crops.” The reply? “Stevia. They should grow Stevia,” the DEA agents had answered. “It’s an excellent cash crop with a growing market. ”The Paraguayan farmers had been reluctant, having been burned once, but they complied with the instructions of their government officials, who had bowed before the pressure of the U.S. government. As soon as their crops were ready for exportation, however, the FDA had placed an embargo on Stevia, forbidding its importation into the United States. Only James May continued purchasing Stevia from the Paraguayan farmers he had been working with since 1982. He had figured out a way to bring stevia into the United States – legally – and market it to American consumers. It is generally accepted that without his determination and more than a quarter of a century of untiring efforts, stevia would not yet be available to consumers nor classified as a sweetener in the United States, and anticipated to become available in Europe by the end of 2011. He is revered in Paraguay for what he has achieved with stevia and for what that means for the future economy of that country. With the organization of the Stevia Federation of the Americas in 2009, formed by the members of the stevia industry from Mexico throughout South America, he was unanimously voted honorary chairman. He is honored worldwide as the “Father of Stevia” and was presented with the SteviaWorld Lifetime Achievement Award in Geneva, Switzerland in May of 2010. In March 2011, the American Herbal Products Association presented him with the APHA Visionary Award because he could see the future of Stevia 25 years before it came to pass, and for his relentless determination to make it happen. He literally spawned a new industry in the western world. In November 2010, at the International Stevia Symposium held in Asunción, the Paraguayan government authorities proclaimed: “Ka’a He’e is the National Treasure of Paraguay.”