My dad has always wanted to grow a vegetable garden, and recently he’s started on a small scale by growing cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes in clay pots in his backyard. Then my mom bought him a stevia plant to add to this collection. My dad’s name is Steve, so it seemed like a fitting choice.
Stevia is also an appropriate gift for loved ones because its leaves are very sweet–about 30 times sweeter than table sugar. And unlike chocolates or candy hearts, stevia leaves contain no carbohydrates or calories. This is something that my diabetic brother and I, as well as my dad, can definitely appreciate.
Of course, I’m not the first one to notice the potential of stevia’s sweet but carb-free leaves. The name Stevia actually refers to an entire genus of herbs and shrubs; Stevia rebaudiana is the species with most of us know as stevia, sweet leaf, sweet herb, or honey leaf. The plant is native to Central and South America. It was originally used in Paraguay, not only as a sweetener, but also for medicinal purposes. In the late nineteenth century, the Swiss botanist Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni undertook a mission to find a live specimen of Stevia rebaudiana, and eventually submitted the first detailed description of the plant. In 1931, two French chemists extracted one of the compounds, steviocide, that gives stevia leaves their sweet taste. However, it wasn’t until 1971 that stevia was produced and marketed commercially, by the Japanese company Morita Kagaku Kogyo Co., Ltd. Stevia’s popularity has since spread around the world, although in some countries it is banned or prohibited from being sold as a sweetener.
So stevia extract is ubiquitous as a sweetener and dietary supplement. But how did our family plan to use stevia leaves their natural, unprocessed form?
At first, we had no idea. My dad watered the stevia plant, let it grow, and waited for inspiration. Then I decided I would make a fruit salad to bring to the annual Memorial Day block party near my parents’ house. I usually like to put mint in fruit salads, but since the mint plant hardly had any leaves left, I decided to chop up a few stevia leaves and add them as a garnish instead. This turned out to be an excellent choice. The stevia added both extra sweetness and a mint-like tang to the fruit salad–without, of course, adding any extra carbs. The result was a delicious dish, especially refreshing in the summer heat.