Science  /  Journal Article

Stevia’s Global Story

Native to Paraguay, Ka’a he’e followed a circuitous path through Indigenous medicine, Japanese food science, and American marketing to reach the US sweeteners market.

Since its introduction in 2011, stevia has stormed the US sweeteners market, making its way into all kinds of treats. But, as historians Bridget Maria Chesterton and Timothy Yang write, its history is much longer than that.

The product we know as stevia is called ka’a he’e, meaning “the sweet herb,” in the Paraguayan language Guaraní. It’s native to only a small area in South America. There, Guaraní people have long used its licorice-flavored leaves as a medicinal herb to regulate blood sugar.

“It was, in other words, a diabetes medicine before diabetes had become a modern disease,” Chesterton and Yang write.

Prior to European contact, the Guaraní didn’t domesticate the plant nor use it as a sweetener. They rarely sweetened their foods, and when they did, they used honey.

In the early twentieth century, European researchers began studying ka’a he’e, giving it the botanical name Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni after the Swiss naturalist Moisés Bertoni. It’s the only member of the Stevia genus that’s naturally sweet. Bertoni recognized ka’a he’e’s potential as a powerful sweetener, claiming that he was “in the position to note that even in dosages much higher than necessary [for sweetening] it does not have any negative effects on the body.”

Word of the herb spread, and in 1928, the Washington Post reported on the wonder plant “containing some substances unknown to science 200 times sweeter than sugar.” However, the reporter noted that it had a bitter aftertaste that would have to be addressed to turn it into a commercially viable sweetener.