Stevia is a naturally sourced, zero-calorie sweetener that has been used as a natural sugar substitute and flavoring ingredient for hundreds of years. Stevia is a natural origin plant extract from the leaves of the stevia plant.
The stevia plant is native to South America. It was first consumed over 200 years ago in South America where the indigenous people used leaves of the plant to sweeten beverages or chewed them for their sweet taste. Traditionally, the plant leaves, often called ‘sweet herb’and were dried and used to sweeten maté, teas and medicines.
The stevia plant was first scientifically recorded in 1899 as Eupatorium rebaudianum by Moises Santiago de Bertoni, in Paraguay. In 1905, it was later defined as Stevia Rebaudiana, a member of the sunflower (Asteraceae) family and related to the Chrysanthemum.
Stevia leaf extract was first commercially adopted as a sweetener by Japan in the 1970s, where it is still a popular ingredient today. Stevia is cultivated mostly in Paraguay, Kenya, China and the United States, and within many other parts of the world, including Vietnam, Brazil, India, Argentina and Colombia.
The sweet tasting components of stevia are called steviol glycosides, which are naturally present in the stevia leaf. There are many steviol glycosides present in the leaf, but eleven steviol glycosides are typically focused on due to their abundance. Each steviol glycoside has a particular taste profile and sweetness intensity. Purified stevia leaf extracts can contain one steviol glycoside or several different glycosides, which can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Steviol glycosides are extracted from the stevia leaf, filtered and purified. This process is similar to how other plant ingredients, such as sugar and vanilla extract, are obtained. The sweet molecules in the stevia plant are extracted by steeping its dried leaves in water (like tea) and then separating and purifying the best tasting steviol glycosides.
The steps of the extraction process include: crushing the leaves, extracting with water, filtering and separating the liquid from plant material, then further purifying the extract with water or food grade alcohol, followed by drying, to obtain high purity stevia leaf extract. Other processes may also be used in some cases.
Following the extraction and purification process, the steviol glycosides are the same as found in the stevia leaf. The extraction and purification process simply gives purified stevia leaf extract a cleaner, more sugar-like taste than crude stevia extracts, which may contain plant components add additional flavors other than a purely sweet taste. Purification is also required to meet the safety standards for foods and beverage use.
The sweetness of about three stevia leaves can replace the sweetness of sugar in a can of 25% sugar-reduced carbonated soft drink (12 oz; 330ml).
Purified Stevia Leaf Extract
High purity stevia leaf extract is defined as containing 95% or greater steviol glycoside content and is often referred to as stevia, steviol glycosides, stevia extracts, purified stevia leaf extract, high purity stevia, or rebiana. Only high purity stevia extracts meeting this specification are approved by major regulatory agencies, including Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and Codex Alimentarius (Codex) for use in foods and beverages. Stevia can be found in thousands of food and beverage products around the world, including teas, soft drinks, juices, waters, flavored milks, yogurts, baked goods, cereals, salad dressings, sauces, confections, and as a table top sweetener. *
*Purified Stevia Leaf Extract is approved by global and national regulatory authorities, however in some countries regulatory specifications may differ by food and beverage category and maximum permitted use levels.