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Grow Your Own Sugar Substitute
by John Harmon
August 25, 2002

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Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I love unusual plants. I got a new one this week when I stopped to talk with John Vanderkley at Adorna Flowers &Landscaping Ltd. It's called Stevia rebaudiana.

Stevia rebaudiana is a herbaceous perennial shrub from the Compositae family and therefore is related to sunflowers and marigolds. At least it's a perennial in South America. Here it would be a "tender perennial" or as I like to call em: houseplants.

Here's some information from the Australian New Crops Newsletter by Timothy Lester about Stevia rebaudiana. "It is native to Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Paraguay where the native Guarani have used caa-ehe (Stevia) for over 1500 years to sweeten otherwise unpalatable medicinal drinks.

Other uses for the plant and its extracts are in weight-loss programs because of its ability to reduce the cravings for sweet and fatty foods. The plant has also been used to treat a number of diseases like diabetes, hypoglycemia, candidiasis, high blood pressure and skin abrasions." Stevioside (the sweet part) does not effect blood glucose levels and is an excellent sweetener for diabetics and hypoglycemics.

Timothy Lester also reports that "Stevia's greatest potential is as a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sodium saccharin without the side effects of either. Dry Stevia leaf is up to 30 times sweeter than sugar. The sweetness in Stevia is mainly attributed to two compounds, stevioside (3-10% of dry leaf weight) and rebaudioside A (1-3%), which can be up to 250 times sweeter than sucrose.

Stevioside has a few advantages over artificial sweeteners in that it is stable at high temperatures (100 C) and a pH range of 3-9 and does not darken with cooking. In the 70's and 80's Stevia was developed as a sweetener/flavor enhancer which has since been used widely for this purpose in Japan, China, Korea, Israel, Brazil and Paraguay. The products in which Stevia has been used include soft drink, ice cream, cookies, pickles, chewing gum, tea and skin care products. In Japan about 40% of the sweetener market is Stevia-based." For information on cooking with Stevia check out
http://govinda.nu/health/herbs/stevia/index.htm
.

This stuff is amazing. Just one small leaf from the plant is like sticking a couple of teaspoons of sugar in your mouth and it's good for your mouth. It's a plaque retardant and helps to prevent cavities. A study at Purdue University showed that stevioside, the main sweet constituent of Stevia inhibits the growth of the bacteria that cause cavities. How can you lose? The sweet without the toothache!

Growing Stevia rebaudiana is fairly easy. The main producers of Stevia are Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Brazil, Malaysia and Paraguay. It's not produced as a field crop in Canada yet but could be grown in fairly poor soil as an annual. The natural climate is semi-humid subtropical with temperature extremes from 21 to 43 C, averaging 24 C so it would be a greenhouse crop in the north. It will grow up to three feet high and should be harvested just before it flowers for the highest concentration of glycoside's (the sweet part). Just one and one half to two tablespoons of the dried green leaves of the plant works out to equal one cup of sugar!

Stevia grows naturally on infertile, sandy acid soils with shallow water tables. This is normally in areas like the edge of mashes and swamps. It likes it wet and humid but will grow nicely in the typical houseplant environment. Reproduction in the wild is mainly by seed, but seed viability can be very poor and highly variable depending on where you get them. Seeds are sold by Thompson & Morgan for £2.99 and in Canada Richters sells seeds for $10.00 a packet or $350.00 a gram. For a live plant stop by Adorna and talk to John.

Once they are grown you harvest the whole plant. The plants are then dried and threshed to remove the stems. Leaf yields of 2850 kg/ha with a stevioside concentration of 105 mg/g have been achieved in Canada. This would be the equivalent of 66.2 tonnes per hectare of sugar without the cane rats!

For more information check out the book "Stevia Rebaudiana: Nature's Sweet Secret" by David Richard. The book includes chapters on Stevia's history, botany and cultivation, pharmacology, safety, use, recipes, Q&A and retails for $4.50.


John Harmon owns and operates Tropicals North. Write to John c/o The Yukon News, 211 Wood St., Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 2E4 or e-mail tropnorth@polarcom.com

 

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