Stevia is a finicky, perennial plant that grows best in environments with lots of sunshine, warm temperatures and plenty of rain. It is grown by natural, conventional plant breeding methods such as cross-pollination and other non-genetically modified processes. When grown in the right places, stevia can be a hardy, sustainable crop for small, independent farming communities.
Known scientifically as Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni, stevia is a member of the sunflower (Asteraceae) family of plants and is mainly grown in Paraguay, Kenya, China and the United States. As increasing volumes of stevia are in demand by consumers, the stevia plant is also now grown in Vietnam, Brazil, India, Argentina and Colombia among other countries.
According the United Nations, agriculture is still the most prevalent employer in the world, delivering income for 40 percent of the world’s population.1 However, about 75 percent of crop biodiversity has been lost since the 1900s and yet biodiversity contributes to more wholesome diets, improved incomes for farming communities and sustainable farming practices.
Stevia has been able to provide an important role in biodiversity because it requires little land and allows farmers to diversify their crops. Unlike commodity crops, stevia is generally grown on smaller plots of land and provides supplemental income to the more commonplace “cash” crops.
In part because stevia is intensely sweet and is an extract, it typically requires only a fifth of the land and much less water to provide the same amount of sweetness as other mainstream sweeteners. For example in Kenya, stevia is typically grown only on a third of the land, with the rest of the land being devoted to other crops.
When growing conditions are most ideal, farmers typically harvest stevia multiple times per year.
After the stevia leaves are harvested, they are dried and then go through a purification process involving extraction, filtration and dehydration (spray drying) that complies with regulatory standards across the globe.
First, the dried leaves are steeped in water, similar to the way you steep tea, to release their sweet tasting steviol glycoside compounds. Next, the liquid is filtered and separated from the plant material. Then the extract is purified and dried to obtain high purity stevia leaf extract with the same sweet components as found in stevia’s natural leaves. These components, known as the steviol glycoside is what food and beverage manufacturers use in their products. This process of purifying the glycosides gives stevia a more sugar-like taste compared to unprocessed crude stevia extracts. Importantly, the crude extracts are not approved for use. It is this method of purification that yields the high purity stevia extracts and is what is required to obtain the safety stamp of approval from regulatory agencies for use in foods and beverages.
Several reasons for stevia’s environmental advantages are associated with its natural concentrated sweetness. As an extract, less is needed to sweeten foods; and since less is needed, there is a smaller environmental impact, from farming to finished ingredient.
Stevia requires lower inputs of land, water, and energy to provide the same amount of sweetness found in other mainstream sweeteners: typically, a fifth of the land and much less water. In a 2013 study, the carbon footprint of stevia was shown to be 79 percent lower than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), 55 percent lower than beet sugar and 29 percent lower than cane sugar, based on industry production standards.2
In this same study, the water footprint of stevia leaf extract–both from rain and irrigation or process–was shown to be 96 percent lower than that used for cane sugar, 94 percent lower than HFCS and 92 percent lower than beet sugar, according to publically available benchmarks in water consumption, when comparing these sweeteners at the same sweetness equivalence.
By choosing the natural origin sweetness of stevia, you can enjoy a more healthful and environmentally friendly diet. That’s double the reason to feel good about your sweetener choice.
- United Nations Website, Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. Retrieved October 16, 2014: http://www.un.org/en/sustainablefuture/food.asp
- Carbon Footprint, Water Footprint for stevia sweeteners reported in PureCircle 2020 Sustainability Goals, accessed August 2013