Stevia is perhaps unique among food ingredients because it's most valued for what it doesn't do. It doesn't add calories. Unlike other sugar substitutes, stevia is derived from a plant. There is some question as to its effectiveness as a weight loss aid or as a helpful diet measure for diabetics.
The stevia plant is part of the Asteraceae family, related to the daisy and ragweed. Several stevia species called candyleaf are native to New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. But the prized species, Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni), grows in Paraguay and Brazil, where people have used leaves from the stevia bush to sweeten food for hundreds of years.
Moises Santiago Bertoni, an Italian botanist, is often credited with the discovery of stevia in the late 1800s, even though the native Guarani people had used it for centuries. Known as kaa-he (or sweet herb) by the native population, the leaves of the plant had many uses. In traditional medicine in these regions, stevia served as a treatment for burns, colic, stomach problems and sometimes as a contraceptive. The leaves were also chewed on their own as a sweet treat.
It took Bertoni over a decade to find the actual plant, leading him to initially describe the plant as very rare. About the same time, more farms started growing and harvesting the stevia plant. Stevia quickly went from growing in the wild in certain areas to being a widely available herb.
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