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Stevia plants dissected: the mysteries unveiled

What is stevia? Stevia plants are officially known by the name Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni. Quite a mouthful, isn't it? Another popular name for stevia is "sweet leaf", which is kind of self-explanatory. 

Let's dive right into the basics! Originally discovered by the Guarany tribe in Paraguay, South America and officially studied for the first time at the end of the 19th century, Stevia rebaudiana is just one of roughly 200 species of the stevia family.

Stevia plants are tough little critters: they can survive almost anywhere, from infertile mountain slopes to green valleys, and don't often fall victim to common plant diseases. Its worst enemy is frost, and therefore the stevia herb develops its sweet taste the best in sunny and warm climates.

stevia plantsThe length of a fully-grown plant depends on how you are growing stevia,  and your sweet leaf will be ready for harvesting after about four months. It is a member of the Asteraceae, aka the Compositae. This concludes our Latin lesson for today: for those of you who prefer plain English, the sunflower, thistle, common daisy and dandelion are of the same race (but don't taste so sweet!).

The plants are harvested two to four times per year but the roots are left in the ground so that they can grow again. This is done because it's harder - although certainly feasible with the proper care and attention - to grow the sweet leaf directly from stevia seeds. Life expectancy is usually about five years.

After the harvest, the leaves are dried, ground up and the glycosides are extracted through the use of fresh water, safeguarding the plant's healthy characteristics.

 

The sweet taste of the stevia herb stems from chemical substances called glycosides, which can be found naturally in stevia leaves, and in fact the leaves of many plants in varying amounts. 

The most important ones derived from stevia are called stevioside and rebaudioside A.

 

stevia powderThese glycosides can be used in different forms, replacing other sweeteners that may cause damage to your health in the long run. 

One of the many benefits of stevia, is that the plant's derivatives have just about zero calories

On estimate, the leaves are at least 40 times sweeter than sugar and the extract that is derived from them, is 200 to 300 times sweeter!

Back in Paraguay, natives have been using stevia plants and the extract from the leaves of the healthy herb to sweeten their tea for hundreds of years, but more recently also - with great success, I might add - for preventing diabetes.




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