Stevia, Sweetener of the Future
Lots of us gardeners who like to grow herbs know the plant, stevia, the extremely sweet leafed herb that is native to Paraguay. Just one little leaf is as sweet as a teaspoon of sugar, but has no calories. People who want a sweetener without calories, or people with diabetes, use stevia instead of sugar. It works best if added after the cooking process rather than adding it before cooking. I grow one or two stevia plants in my herb garden each year and I offer the dried, powdered herb for sale through my business.
This week, The Coca Cola Company and Cargill jointly announced a new stevia extract. The brand name is Truvia (tru-VEE-a) and it will be showing up in a multitude of products made by those companies.
An article on the FDA’s website describes stevia’s unusual status as a dietary supplement, but not as a food additive. “Stevia is derived from a South American shrub,” the article says. “Though it can impart a sweet taste to foods, it cannot be sold as a sweetener because the FDA considers it an unapproved food additive.”
There have been rumors for years that the sugar industry’s lobbyists have successfully petitioned the FDA against stevia being approved as a sweetener. There is a good deal of information on stevia being treated much like an illegal drug before the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). Stevia cannot be labeled a “sweetener” or even referred to as “sweet,” according to the FDA website (more information can be found at www.stevia.net) What is definite at present is Cargill and Coca-Cola are moving ahead with the release of Truvia extract, made from the stevia plant, and labeling it as a dietary supplement instead of a food additive, which keeps it in the legal status for the FDA.
The announcement is significant because this stevia extract has the possibility of replacing other artificial sweeteners now on the market. And all of this from a sweet little plant you can grow in your own garden.
Stevia is pretty easy to find if you intend to grow it yourself. I’ve seen it at every plant festival I’ve attended this year including the annual Herbal Affair at Sand Springs, OK, at the Spring Gardenfest at Baker Creek Seed near Mansfield, MO and several farmer’s markets and swap meets. Ten years ago stevia plants were difficult to find but not any more. You can order it by mail (just click on the “Looking for Plants?” button on my website for sources www.LongCreekHerbs.com) or at any nursery selling herbs. Spring Fever Greenhouses in Rogersville, MO has it, as does Perennials, Etc. at Garfield, AR.
The plant is grown here as an annual even though it supposedly will grow into a small shrub in more tropical areas. In my garden is reaches about 15 inches tall and can be harvested throughout the warm months. It can be overwintered but I simply buy new plants in the spring when I buy my other annual herbs.
To grow stevia, plant it in average garden soil in full sun. The herb will grow anywhere basil or tomatoes grow. You might want to plant several plants if you are going to harvest it to dry for use later. Just like basil or any other herb, the more you harvest it, the more leaves and better flavor it’s going to produce.
Several readers responded to the previous column and emailed me asking where they could find yellow plastic drinking glasses to make into sticky traps. Wal-Mart usually carries yellow as do the party stores and often the Dollar Store has them. Tanglefoot is available at nurseries, garden centers and most area hardware stores.
No, these fellows aren't my cousins. They're part of the Presley Family musicians in Branson. But don't they look like they could use a glass of iced tea with some stevia in it?