History of Use

“Will sugar always be more advantageous than Kaa-he-e? We cannot suppose this. The superiority of sugar as an energetic food will not be contested, but this does not stop our plant from being stronger as a sweetener.”
Kaa-he-e, Its Nature and Its Properties, by Dr. Moises N. Bertoni, Paraguayan Scientific Analysis, December 1905

A Powerfully Sweet Native Tradition

The Guarani Indians had known for centuries about the unique advantages of kaa he-he (a native term which translates as “sweet herb”) — long before the invaders from the Old World were lured by the treasures of the New. These native people knew the leaves of the wild stevia shrub (a perennial indigenous to the Amambay Mountain region) to have a sweetening power unlike anything else; they commonly used the leaves to enhance the taste of bitter mate (a tea-like beverage) and medicinal potions, or simply chewed them for their sweet taste. The widespread native use of stevia was chronicled by the Spaniards in historical documents preserved in the Paraguayan National Archives in Asuncion. Historians noted that indigenous peoples had been sweetening herbal teas with stevia leaves “since ancient times.” In due course, it was introduced to settlers. By the 1800s, daily stevia consumption had become well entrenched throughout the region — not just in Paraguay, but also in neighboring Brazil and Argentina.

Like the discovery of America itself, however, credit for stevia’s “discovery” goes to an Italian. In this case, the explorer was a botanist whose initial unfamiliarity with the region (along with his difficulty in locating the herb) caused him to believe that he had stumbled onto a “little-known” plant.

A New World “Discovery”

Dr. Moises Santiago Bertoni, director of the College of Agriculture in Asuncion, first learned of what he described as “this very strange plant” from Indian guides while exploring Paraguay’s eastern forests in 1887. This area was not the herb’s native ‘growing ground.’ Consequently, Bertoni, by his own account, was initially “unable to find it.” It was 12 years before he was presented with tangible evidence — a packet of stevia fragments and broken leaves received from a friend who had gotten them from the mate plantations in the northeast. He subsequently announced his discovery of the “new species” in a botanical journal published in Asuncion.

Bertoni named the “new” variety of the Stevia genus in honor of a Paraguayan chemist named Rebaudi who subsequently became the first to extract the plant’s sweet constituent. “In placing in the mouth the smallest particle of any portion of the leaf or twig,” Bertoni wrote, “one is surprised at the strange and extreme sweetness contained therein. A fragment of the leaf only a few square millimeters in size suffices to keep the mouth sweet for an hour; a few small leaves are sufficient to sweeten a strong cup of coffee or tea.”

It wasn’t until 1903, however, that Bertoni discovered the live plant, a gift from the parish priest of Villa San Pedro. The following year, as he recounted, “the appearance of the first flowers enabled me to make a complete study” — the publication of which appeared in December, 1905, after an interruption caused by a civil war. What he found was enough to convince him that “the sweetening power of kaa he-e is so superior to sugar that there is no need to wait for the results of analyses and cultures to affirm its economic advantage…the simplest test proves it.”

By 1913, Bertoni’s earlier impression of what had now been dubbed Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni had undergone a change. What he had previously referred to as a “rare” and “little-known” plant had now become “famous” and “well-known.” The botanist’s initial misperception is explained by the Herb Research Foundation as being akin to that of a foreigner trying to find wild ginseng in the U.S., and coming to the erroneous conclusion that it is a rare plant when, in fact, it is widely prevalent — provided you know where to look. Further complicating the picture was the difficulty of traveling within Paraguay during the late 1800s, entailing “an upriver journey of many days by steamship.”

Raising Stevia — and the Stakes

Bertoni’s “discover” was a turning point for stevia in one very real sense (other than being identified, analyzed and given a name). Whereas prior to 1900 it had grown only in the wild, with consumption limited to those having access to its natural habitat, it now became ripe for cultivation. In 1908, a ton of dried leaves was harvested, the very first stevia crop. Before long, stevia plantations began springing up, a development that corresponded with a marked reduction in the plant’s natural growth area due to the clearing of forests by timber interests and, to an extent, the removal of thousands of stevia plants for transplantation (the growing of stevia from seed simply doesn’t work). Consequently, its use began to increase dramatically, both in and beyond Latin America.

As word of this unique sweet herb began to spread, so, too, did interest in its potential as a marketable commodity. That, in turn, raised concerns within the business community. Stevia was first brought to the attention of the U.S. government in 1918 by a botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who said he had learned about stevia while drinking mate and tasted it years later, finding it to have a “remarkable sweetness.”

Three years later, stevia was presented to the USDA by American Trade Commissioner George S. Brady as a “new sugar plant with great commercial possibilities.” Brady took note of its nontoxicity and its ability to be used in its natural state, with only drying and grinding required. He also conveyed the claims that it was “an ideal and safe sugar for diabetics.” In a memo to the Latin American Division of the USDA, Brady further stated that he was “desirous of seeing it placed before any American companies liable to be interested, as it is very probable that it will be of great commercial importance.”

Stevia’s commercial potential, however, was already known to others who were less than happy about it. In 1913, a report from the official public laboratory of Hamburg, Germany, noted that “specimens received are of the well-known plant which alarmed sugar producers some years ago.”

Rediscovered in Japan

While nothing came of this early show of interest in the United States, an event occurred in France in 1931 that would later prove significant. There, two chemists isolated the most prevalent of several compounds that give the stevia leaf its sweet taste, a pure white crystalline extract they named stevioside. One U.S. government researcher, Dr. Hewitt G. Fletcher, described this extract as “the sweetest natural product yet found,” though adding, “It is natural to ask, ‘of what use is stevioside?’ The answer at this point is ‘none.'”

Within the next couple of decades, however, the enterprising Japanese had discovered just how useful stevioside really was. The Japanese either banned or strictly regulated artificial sweeteners during the 1960s, consistent with a popular movement away from allowing chemicals in the food supply. They soon discovered the ideal replacement for both sugar and its synthetic substitutes: refined stevia extracts.

Originally introduced to Japan in 1970 by a consortium of food-product manufacturers, stevioside and other stevia products quickly caught on. By 1988, they reportedly represented approximately 41% of the market share of potently sweet substances consumed in Japan. In addition to widespread use as a tabletop sweetener, like the packets of saccharin (“Sweet-n-Low”) and aspartame (“Equal”) commonly found in the United States, stevia was also used by the Japanese to sweeten a variety of food products, including ice cream, bread, candies, pickles, seafood, vegetables, and soft drinks.

In addition to demonstrating stevia’s nearly instant popularity in locales far removed from its native habitat, Japan’s experience proved several other significant facts about this phenomenal plant: its adaptability and its safety. Adaptability was proven through the discovery that the plant could be grown throughout most of this temperate island nation, albeit under special hothouse conditions. Studies were even initiated to evaluate the substitution of stevia for rice under cultivation in some areas. Stevia’s safety was proven through extensive scientific testing.

The spread of the stevia phenomenon was not limited to Japan. Today it is also grown and used in approximately 10 other countries outside South America, including China, Germany, Malaysia, Israel and South Korea. Stevia might by now be entrenched in the United States as well, had it not been for a concerted effort to block its very entry.

From “The Stevia Story: A tale of incredible sweetness & intrigue.”
Copyright, 2000 by Donna Gates

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Sankalp G July 13, 2016 at 12:45 pm

Business Proposal


Muhammad Azam Nazir Sheikh June 15, 2016 at 9:52 am


I am marketing stevia plants, dried leaves, and just powdered for easy use.

Stevia is Natural and with almost no side effects.

Good for All


Ritchie September 5, 2015 at 8:41 pm

Sorry, hit the submit before I fixed errors:

What I meant to say and add is, I’m writing a report on Japan’s decision to use Stevia and the benefits both health and financial it has documented?


Ritchie September 5, 2015 at 8:39 pm

I’m curious if anyone would know how to get information on Japan’s decision making toward using Stevia, health benefits it has found and financial gains?


Louisa H June 9, 2015 at 6:12 pm

This stuff is NASTY, IT’S AWFUL, and it totally tastes like crap because it is crap! But of course, you’re ilk would sell crap for a buck if you could. You’d think it tasted like maple syrup, or honey, the way you pushed it on the public. You even made it look like a narcotic! But, the EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!!! THE STEVIA TASTES JUST LIKE ARTIFICIAL CRAP!!!!


Katy Swan November 18, 2015 at 7:31 pm

Ok before any of you comment on the product you bought at a store, you might want to rethink you’re saying. Growing the plant you get at a nursery and growing it yourself, is a lot different, than what you get from a department store.
The benefits you get when you grow your own and use the leaves, it really does leave a sweet taste in your mouth. Its not sugar, no, its sweeter. But the benefits of having the plant right at your fingertips, and knowing the benefits it holds is nothing but significant.


Summer June 6, 2016 at 4:22 pm


You have obviously not dealt with sugar related illness and cravings. Sugar is so overused in our country that children now consume MORE than adults, and for the first time EVER…..will not out-live their parents. This is due to our nutrition… and sugar is at the forefront. It’s in everything! The big manufacturers name it 50 different things to hide it in their product to get YOU addicted so you buy more, so you want more sugar. IT”S ALL ABOUT MONEY TO THEM. And since they couldn’t make $ off of Stevia….the big players have taken it, adulterated it, added chemicals and call it Stevia to now make money. We should be applauding the efforts to bring this sweetener to market. It is natural, 0 calorie, non-chemical ( if sourced right) , and 200X sweeter than sugar which is probably why your taste buds where in shock. If you want to be sick, fat, and sugar addicted…go right ahead. I’m in the business of teaching people how to feel good, full of energy, have clearer skin, better mood, and how to NOT be addicted to sugar. If you didn’t know already…it’s 8 times MORE addictive than cocaine which might also explain your reluctance. But please, don’t make false claims about Stevia. It is NOT artificial. It is not Nasty. Find a brand you like…I’ve tried about 5 and found a few that I stick to. It is a God send to me and so many others who want a sugar alternative that ISN”T nasty, chemically laden, and won’t spike our blood sugars. Be educated before you berate.

Much love and mutual respect,


Granny Two-Names June 27, 2016 at 3:06 am

Louisa H, Katy Swan and Summer both nailed it! When using stevia one needs to be aware that it does NOT measure equal to sugar….’a teaspoon to a teaspoon’ or ‘a cup to a cup ‘ of sugar. If used in that manner it will be extremely bitter and, yes, it will be disgusting. I have been using stevia since 1997 and have had no problems with it. However, I was taught how to properly use it from the start.

There was a period of time from about 2005 or 2006 that I could not get stevia and began using Splenda. At that time I was unaware that using the ‘fake’ sweeteners held more dangers than using real sugar. In 2009 or 2010 I finally found stevia in stores and promptly switched back. I will not use any product that contains sucralose, aspartame, saccharin or any ‘fake’ sweetener, nor do I allow such products in my home. The FDA approved aspartame in 1981 as a ‘nutritive sweetener’, then in 1983 they approved it to be used in carbonated drinks….yet they still warned people of the dangers of artificial sweeteners. Now, I do not want anyone to think I support the FDA in their findings for or against things, because I do not, BUT they have harped on the dangers of artificial sweeteners since I was a child and yet they continue to allow such toxins to be produced and used here in the United States. At the same time the FDA is warning people about ‘fake’ sweeteners, they were also doing everything they could to stop the use of stevia. Why? Because the FDA is in the pockets of the ‘fake’ sweetener companies, just like the drug companies. The FDA will not allow the use of many drugs in the United States, even though the drugs have been used in other countries for years and years with great success. So, my opinion of the FDA is not favorable. They say one thing, yet they do another. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. Standard behavior of the government in our country. People sue drug companies for ‘wrongful’ death because of a drug that was used. How about suing the FDA in such lawsuits too? After all, the FDA is the agency approving what the American public can or cannot have access to. Think about it.

But back to stevia. The history of it dates back much further than the majority of people know. It was first commercialized in 1970 or 1971, but it had been used for well over 1500 years by the natives of Brazil, Paraquay, Argentina, Mexico, and other parts of South America….even part of the United States. The natives of those countries found that not only was it sweet, but the herb could also be used for medical purposes. In the early 1990’s stevia was banned by the FDA claiming that it caused cancer. Strange that they said the same thing about the ‘fake’ sweeteners, which are man-made, yet they allowed the ‘fake’ sweeteners to be produced and stay on the market and to this day the FDA continues to allow the ‘fake’ sweeteners to be manufactured and used. Do a bit of research on ‘aspartame’ poisoning and you will be shocked at how many people are misdiagnosed with other things because far too many medical personnel deny it exists. But read about or talk to people who have suffered from it and you will be equally shocked.

I will step off my soapbox now.


Jessie K Bertoni May 6, 2015 at 5:21 am

Thanks for sharing this article and doing justice to my great great grandfathers’ discovery!


Michael Anthony Broder May 13, 2015 at 6:52 am

It sounds as if your grandfather worked very hard to bring Stevia to the modern world. His contribution should not be minimized.


nikhil July 19, 2015 at 7:14 am

Salute to your great grand fathers…


Jman October 6, 2015 at 2:06 am

Bless your grandfather!


Mason September 2, 2014 at 7:26 pm

I love This GuYYYYYYSSSSS!!!!!!


sabrina james January 10, 2014 at 8:26 am

stevia is the best sweetener, i use it in my drinks, cooking, baking and use as a body scrub, try it , its good to yourself. god bless.


Ramana Rao KV May 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Stevia is sweet but not to the taste of cane sugar. But we are yet to learn any disease is spared by cane sugar? Similarly the artificial sweeteners!
Whereas stevia is preventing and controlling almost all the diseases to a very large extent in the crude form itself, which is affordable to low income group and inevitable even to the rich. In a way it is a GOD’s gift to the mankind for a disease free life to a very large extent, especially in the present days of rising diseases exponentially. Governments/ Public institutes to review the present harming sweeteners and guide for the promotion of stevia in the right direction. -Ramana Rao KV


Jaime B. Enage March 28, 2012 at 4:11 am

I am from the Phil. and many are turning to this plant as supplement and in place of sugar especially those with restricted consumption of sweet particularly the diabetics. A cool place in Baguio which is on the mountain grow this plant. In the lowland here in Manila I found seedlings on order from the Seedling Bank in Quezon Ave. corner EDSA. Your historical account of this plant is enlightening especially now that the price of sugar in the Phil. is getting expensive albeit we are considered a sugar producing country. Lets turn organic. God bless.


Chelsey Little January 23, 2012 at 6:39 pm

hahaha Steviaaa!


Josh Logan May 18, 2011 at 3:26 pm

That is very interesting. Something should be noted about its alkaline properties and the effects alkalinity has on the body.


Jazmin April 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm

This is a very usefull article Thx!


Pati Collins April 6, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Wow! the history of the Stevia plant was very interesting! I learned a lot !


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