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The Real Story of Stevia

By Mary_RD on Nov 09, 2010 09:00 AM in Tips & Updates
Edited By +Rachel Berman

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim May, the “Father of Stevia.”  To earn his title, Jim spent the past 30 years getting stevia to the American table.  Jim told his tale of passion and perseverance, one where the little guy wins.  Stevia is an no-calorie herbal sweetener that is 300 times as sweet as sugar.  It grows wild in Paraguay where it has been used for hundreds of years.

Once upon a time...

Back in the early 1980s, Jim May learned about stevia from Peace Corp workers who had been in Paraguay.  Jim saw stevia as something good for the body and good for South American farmers as well.  In 1982, Jim began to import high-grade stevia extract that he produced in Paraguay – until the FDA enforced an all out ban.

The FDA said stevia was an “unsafe food additive.”  Their concerns were based on several flimsy studies done in South America.  No matter that stevia had been safely used as a sweetener in Japan for 25 years, or that scientists could not replicate the results of those studies.

According to Jim May and Vegetarian Times, the FDA’s behavior was “motivated by a trade complaint,” presumably from a food company that would be hurt by the competition.  In the early 1980s, a new artificial sweetener, aspartame, had been introduced by GD Searle, a pharmaceutical firm owned by Monsanto. Aspartame had been proven safe by industry-sponsored tests.

Times Change

In 1994, with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) stevia could be sold as an “Herb and Botanical Extract” - no longer under the jurisdiction of the FDA.  Jim could now sell stevia but he couldn't call it "sweet" because that would make it a "food additive" back in the hands of the FDA.  But word got out that stevia had a sweet taste.

Knowing that FDA regulations allow independent laboratories to submit safety tests to the scientists who award GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status to food ingredients, Jim hired a group of former FDA scientists to do studies on stevia over the next decade.  Simultaneously, the agricultural giant, Cargill, and Whole Earth Sweetener, a subsidiary of the company that makes Equal, were performing safety studies on stevia.  They submitting data for rebaudioside-A, a chemically purified extract of stevia, to the FDA and Jim  submitted his data as well.  In 2008, the FDA accepted reb-A as a food additive. Jim May could then sell stevia as a sweetener and the food giants could sell their brands.

Stevia Now
Stevia is available under several names.  There is Jim May’s SweetLeaf,  Coke and Cargill’s Truvia, Pepsi and Pure Circle’s Pure Via, Sunwin’s Only Sweet, Cumberland Packing Company’s Stevia in the Raw, and others.  Jim maintains that his brand is best because he uses purified water and ultra-filtration to extract all of the glycosides (the sweetness agents) from the stevia leaf.  He says the big companies use the chemical, erythrinol, to extract only one glycoside, reb-A, from stevia. In discarding the others, stevia's healthfulness declines. 

But don’t feel bad for Jim.  According to a report by a food and agribusiness financial institution from the Netherlands, sales of stevia-based sweeteners are expected to reach $700 million within the next five years.  Jim’s company, Wisdom Natural Brands™, has tripled the size of its headquarters in response to the company's growth.  And while the big companies grow stevia on farms in China, Jim still cultivates his in South America.  His dream for stevia finally came true.

Your thoughts....

Have you tried stevia?

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I use stevia everyday in my coffee. I haven't used in cooking yet but soon I'll experiment with it. Love it!

Does anyone know if you can use stevia in baking like Splenda?  Does it come in measured form or just packets for use in drinks?  Anyone ever tried baking with it?  Thoughts would be appreciated!  Laughing

I use stevia every day in my coffee, cereal and cookinig.  It is so much sweeter than sugar that I only end up using 1/2 the amount even in cooking.  It works  great and it's natural.  I will look for Jim May's brand SweetLeaf at the health food store because he deserves the credit for getting it to the USA.  Thank you for sharing the story.

I have used it in baking.  It's sweeter than sugar so I use 1/2 the amount and I also use powdered milk to make up the difference in the recipe.  So if it calls for 1 cup, I used 1/2 stevia and 1/2 powdered milk.  My husband loves it. :-)

I have been using stevia since about 2005.  I started using it when I found out I had type 2 diabetes.  I am a huge baker and tried to get the same results with stevia....I ended up using xylitol instead for all my one could tell the difference when I used xylitol... I still use stevia for anything that I don't have to cook...because like others have seems to multiply in its sweetness when cooked....

I love rocks and I am so glad to see that it is so available now...

This is the first time I am hearing about this Stevia product I will have to try it.

Wonderful article! I have not used stevia much yet. I will and I will be sure to use the SweetLeaf brand; for Mr. May and for South America!

I've heard many similar stories about the FDA and as a result I put very little faith in their approval or disapproval of anything.


I cooked up some cranberries with stevia last night.  I think its every bit as good as sugar.  

I so wanted to love stevia bec. I was addicted to aspartame (diet cokes) but I'm sensitive to herbs and I found it gave me a headache evertime I was using it. It took me a while to find out the cause but once I stopped stevia, my headache stayed away. A pity because I believe it's a good product.

There are always concerns about the long term and short term safety of sweeteners. Too much aspartame has been linked to many health problems such as cancer and neurological effects when used over the long term. Sorbitol, malitol, and isomalt seem to cause intestinal cramping and may have laxative effects when too much is consumed. My question is what are the concerns about Stevia? Does it have short term effects when too much is consumed? 

I use stevia just like sugar  in anything that sweet  is needed, only far far less. I use to always put a little sugar in my spaghetti sauce now for a large pot (2-quarts approximately) I use 2 small packets, which equals 10 calories. I like the packets cause lot easier to controll.

I used stevia because it was recommended to me instead of sugar or other sweetners. The day after I started using a headache started that lasted until I started thinking what I changed since that day. The only thing that came back was: stevia. I quit using it and the next day my headache was gone.

No more stevia for me!

I grow stevia and it is great! The leaves are so sweet but taste faintly of chlorophyll, so it's best to extract it before using. There are two ways: put leaves in warm water for a day, then strain and keep extract in refrigerator for a week. Use as needed. Or you can use an extracting medium, such as alcohol, for 2 weeks. Strain and it will last for several years.  Tastes great in beverages, or used in baking cakes.

I started using stevia (In the Raw brand) about a month ago.  I really like it.  I haven't figured out how to use it in baking yet but Christmas is coming up and I'd love to be able to use it in my cookie recipes instead of sugar.

I tried Truvia and found that it tasted horrible.   I'd like to try the truly natural Stevia, not the kind processed with chemicals, which defeats the purpose.

I love Stevia too! Use it every day in my coffee but still use honey, syrup, for baking...

Maybe you were having some sort of sugar withdrawl.

Maybe it's just me, but no matter how little stevia I use, it has a bitter, licorice-like aftertaste that I do not find pleasant at all.  I happen to like licorice, but I'm very sensitive to this bitter taste in stevia and cannot tolerate it in any quantity, in or on anything.  I bought a whole box of it and had to give it away.  Hope it's better for you...

I love stevia and a friend of mine gave me a stevia plant. Like others have said, stevia is very sweet.

I have used stevia for years, and I would agree that it has a slight licorice aftertaste.  But, I also like licorice, so that didn't bother me!

I get the packets or powder from Trader Joe's.

Author's note re: cooking with stevia

Stevia is extremely heat stable and so it works well in cooking. Most stevia recipes require stevia powder or the liquid extract form. The extract is always better in liquids. The sugar to stevia conversions differ by brand and so read up on the kind you choose.  I find that it's best to use recipes that have been developed specifically for stevia either from cookbooks available in bookstores or manufacturer's websites, such as these recipes from Truvia.

Thanks for all of your wonderful comments!


I only use Stevia instead of sugar.  Keeps my blood sugar and my weight down.

I use Stevia, but I don't use any brands listed.  I use pure stevia extract.  I buy mine on Amazon for a good price and a tiny bit goes a LONG way.  Try and stay away from any Stevia products that are cut with chemicals, as natural is always a better option.

yes you can.  I don't have "sugar" in my house. All my baking and cooking etc. that calls for sugar..i use stevia. I was a splenda user, now stevia is the only sweetner I use.

If you get a licorice aftertaste, you are using too much.  Try backing off how much you use.  With Stevia a little bit goes a really long way and it is so concentrated you don't need very much to get to the desired sweetness.

I vowed to eliminate articifial sweetners from my diet almost a year ago and quit my diet coke addition cold turkey.  Since then, I've been using stevia and I really like it.  Each brand tastes a bit different given how it is processed.  I agree that the Sweet Leaf brand is best b/c it is not processed with chemicals - agree with comment above about it defeating the purpose if the natural plant gets processed iwth chemicals! It's great to hear the story behind it - I will definitely stick with SweetLeaf to support the natural version and the man who fought to bring Stevia to us.  I carry packets with me so I can use it when out instead of the chemical stuff that is everwhere.  A little goes a long way - I can get several uses out of one packet!  I've also foudn the sweet leaf brand has the least aftertaste (must be those darn chemicals in the other brands!)

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Glad to see this post today! And disheartened to see the BIG GUYS brands using chemicals. Truvia cut with chemical is gross. The whole reason I switched from Splenda  was due to the fact  it is a chemical. I have had nerve issues and sensitivity and my doctor cut me off it and had me switch to Stevia. You can read that aspartame and splenda are linked to nerve impairment and damage over longterm use. Food for thought!

Yes, I have baked with Stevia. Just last night I had a wonderful baked apple with Stevia (True Sweet) and cinnamon. Delicious!

i started using stevia for the HcG diet this summer, and i started including the liquid form to make my smoothies. I have tried English Toffee flavor(Great for coffee) Vanilla flavor and Chocolate rasberry (both great with fruit). I like stevia alot and dont notice any kind of funny taste. I will deffinatley try to find the Sweet Leaf brand  now.

I will look for the Sweetleaf now, instead of the other brands-

I want to support the South American farmers instead of China.

I have used Stevia since 1982, when I first bought it from a health food store. it is now main-stream, and I am glad it is getting it's due. I work in a large grocery/dept store chain in the grocery section. When people ask where the artificial sugars are, I always ask if they have tried Stevia, and give it a little plug. Just my little bit for the nations healthSmile.

Ok, after hearing some of your comments, I would love to hear the "truth" about aspartame, Splenda, Equal, and cancer, and nerve damage, with long term use, and the other things you have mentioned etc.  I do use a LOT. Has that been established with well conducted studies?  Its so hard to know "what to believe" anymore.  It gets to the point where sometimes I just ignore things - like the big debate about  coconut oil being good for you, vs being the worst thing ever.  That is for another discussion, but I really would like to know the TRUTH about artificial sweeteners! Anyone, anyone?  References, scientific studies, articles, links?

Love Stevia!!!

I use Truvia in my oatmeal once a week or so. Still, one can't help but be skeptical. All the other "miracle sweetners" on the market have eventually been found harmful...

My general policy is to avoid them as much as possible.

I tried Stevia (Pure Via and Stevia in the Raw) and didn't like the taste of either. Maybe gacdirect is right and I need to try using less. 

Haven't tried it yet, but I will now.  Thanks for the great story.

my wife is from paraguay and introduced me to stevia several years ago (and we went to visit the farm in eastern paraguay where the swiss botanist moises bertoni first scientifically described and catalogued it).  i, too am excited to see it finally getting its due recognition in the states!  it's far sweeter than what we're used to so you only need a tiny bit (in coffee, milkshakes, baking, whatever!) and it's all-natural!  we actually just bring little jars of the liquid form with us whenever we visit paraguay so it's very cheap--a little bottle of 8 oz. or so lasts 6 months!

Original Post by: robbin1210

I tried Truvia and found that it tasted horrible.   I'd like to try the truly natural Stevia, not the kind processed with chemicals, which defeats the purpose.

Ditto- I think Truvia tastes terribly bitter. I also tried Sun Crystals which is a blend of raw sugar and stevia. I figured that the little bit of sugar would help cut the bitterness of the stevia, but I was sorely mistaken.

I have been meaning to try the raw stuff, but it is hard to find. Anyone know if they give away free samples? I would order it online if I knew I liked it.

I have used stevia for years, usually in liquid extract form.  A small amount, one or two drops, is perfect for a cup of coffee. or tea. One or two dropperfuls will sweeten a gallon.  Depends on individual taste of course. Using too much will oversweeten anything and may leave a bitter aftertaste.  Research indicates it is safe but there is concern that very high amounts may unduly lower blood pressure.  The amounts used in that test were very high ( far above what one would use normally)  but it might be a good idea to check with your doctor if you have heart disease.  ( See Cosumer Lab herbal encyclopedia).  I have never had any problems using it. 

SWEET LEAF?? Hee hee, I bet Ozzy and Black Sabbath love that one.

I tried baking with Ste-via.  I made gluten free cookies, the no bake chocolate kind.  I substituted Ste-via for all the sugar.  It was horrible tasting.  I threw all of the batch out.  If anyone figures out anything different, please comment.

I love Ste-via in smoothies, salads and other things where you just use a little bit.  I am trying to go completely sugar free.  I would love some recipes that use natural sweetener such as cookies, etc.  Please post with any ideas.  Thank you.  I appreciate this site so much.  DOC

I don't know if Mr. May is really the Father of stevia...  Stevia was used to sweeten Vernors Ginger Ale from the end of the Civil War to 1991 when it was banned. 

I have every flavor of the liquid Sweet Leaf brand.  A great way to use it is in the egg whites you buy in the carton.  I cut tiny pieces of lemon and orange peel.  I saute them in butter flavored Pam spray.  Then I add some lemon and Valencia orange flavored Stevia to the egg whites.  I start with a clean pan sprayed with Pam and cook the egg whites adding the cooked citrus peel mixed in.  It makes a sweet omelet that is total protein and I think it tastes great.  It reminds me of french toast without the carbs.  You can add some orange slices on top too.

For those of you trying stevia and getting headaches, make sure you aren't using the brands that the big companies are putting out. Like the article said, they are using chemical extraction methods, which wouldn't surprise me if that can cause headaches for some people. I would trust Sweet Leaf, or most of the other brands that you would find at most health food stores, not at your regular grocery store.

This would also go for those folks who are reluctant to try stevia because of the history of artificial sweetners. If you are using a brand like Sweet Leaf, it is not artificial, and has a good long-term history of safe usage. I don't know if that's the case with the brands from the bigger companies. We already know that they are using chemical extraction, and that's a big enough warning sign to me. Like I said, use Sweet Leaf or the brands found in health food stores, or, better yet, start growing your own stevia plants and use it direct from nature! Stevia is very, very easy to grow yourself -- see

Original Post by: stxenia

Ok, after hearing some of your comments, I would love to hear the "truth" about aspartame, Splenda, Equal, and cancer, and nerve damage, with long term use, and the other things you have mentioned etc.  I do use a LOT. Has that been established with well conducted studies?  Its so hard to know "what to believe" anymore.  It gets to the point where sometimes I just ignore things - like the big debate about  coconut oil being good for you, vs being the worst thing ever.  That is for another discussion, but I really would like to know the TRUTH about artificial sweeteners! Anyone, anyone?  References, scientific studies, articles, links?

Please see 1/aspartame-update.aspx. Dr. Mercola has even written a whole book about it.

Just like everything in life, too much of anything is not good for you. The trick is to be sure the sweetener is NOT artificial and is not processed with chemicals. I have not tried the Stevia but would like to do so. Another form of all-natural sweetener is  Xylitol. It used to be called Birch bark sugar. It is now being used in certain gums (Trident and Icebreakers)  and even Jello. It is not a product that is easy to cook with but is definitely a great alternative for diabetics. As an added bonus, the Xylitol helps prevent bacteria in the mouth that causes cavities. Will definitely try the Stevia for cooking in very small amounts. Wink


I actually had the opposite happen to me- severe headaches from diet soda back in the 80's when they switched from saccharin to aspartame.  I stopped consuming aspartame back then.  

I do use stevia, but I agree with other posters, that a little goes a long way. I like the liquid best in beverages vs the powder.  I have found  the powder doesn't dissolve well in liquids and has a stronger aftertaste.  I love the powder for cereal, and the aftertaste is gone.  I even have some growing in my garden, I have to figure out how to make my own extract! 

So glad to see this article!  Very interesting, and I thank Jim May for his efforts!

I've been using stevia for about 2 years since I was diagnosed with food allergies including being sensitive to cane sugar and maple sugar.  I prefer the liquid stevia extract manufactured by Stevita because it dissolves well in tea and other liquids unlike the crystals.  A little goes a long ways.  If you are getting a strong licorice aftertaste, try cutting back on the amount.  Smile


I've been using stevia (dark extract) in my tea since the early 90s.  I cannot use it in coffee, however, because it makes me lightheaded, gives me a headache and makes me feel generally ill all over.

Apparently the caffeine in coffee causes enough of an adrenaline rush that adding stevia--a known blood sugar leveler--tips me right over the endge into a hypoglycemic episode.

I would guess that those who are having headaches on account of stevia should have their glucose level checked.

I bought powdered stevia leaf frrom a health food store and wish I had not bothered.  I found it very very bitter- and I did not use much.  No matter how little I used, I did not find sweet.  Only bitter and blah.  I do drink Stash licorice tea and have also made tea from the root- that tastes great.  I will never waste my money on stevia again.

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