It’s an herb. It’s much sweeter than sugar. It’s almost calorie-free. It does not cause the after-eating spike in blood sugar that aggravates diabetes.

Wait. There’s more.

It’s  actually good for you.

It reduces blood sugar and blood pressure, and boosts immune function. It’s safer than other artificial sweeteners.

And you can  grow it yourself. (see below)

It’s stevia (Stevia rebaudiana).

Stevia had to go through a long U.S. regulatory review, but you can find it now in products.

I have a gardener’s interest in herbs and  natural healing. As with many herbs, Americans are late to the game in using stevia. It is actually native to Paraguay and Brazil. There, the Guarani Indians called it kaa-he-e, meaning sweet herb, or honey leaf.

stevia-packsPart of the delay in getting approval in the U.S. to use stevia as a food additive was a complaint to FDA that tried to link it to cancer and genetic mutations. Those charges turned out to be  false, and some suspect that the whole thing was a plot (conspiracy theorists enter here) to protect the lucrative, existing artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘N Low (saccharine), NutraSweet (aspartame) and Sunette (acesulfame K).

It was banned until 1994, though you could buy it as a “supplement” in health food stores.

Last year, the FDA  ruling was reversed and 2 stevia sweeteners have been approved as food additives (SweetLeaf and Truvia).

Beyond using it as a sweetener, studies show that it has other natural healing effects. According to Mother Earth News:

1. Researchers in Taiwan gave 106 people with high blood pressure, ages 28 to 75, either a placebo or stevia extract (250 milligrams three times a day). After three months, blood pressure in the stevia group dropped significantly, with no side effects.

2. Other Taiwan scientists gave 168 adults with high blood pressure, average age 52, either a placebo or stevioside (500 milligrams three times a day). After one week, the stevia group showed lower blood pressure, and it remained low for the two years the study lasted.

3. Danish researchers gave a dozen type-2 diabetics a test meal plus a placebo or stevioside (1 gram). Thirty minutes later, the stevioside group had significantly lower blood sugar. The researchers said stevia may be “advantageous in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.”

4.  Indian researchers have discovered that stevia is rich in antioxidants, which means that it should help prevent the nation’s three top killers: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Indeed, a Chinese animal study shows that a compound in stevia, isosteviol, helps prevent brain damage from stroke.

5. An Indian animal study shows that stevia boosts immune function, particularly the ability of white blood cells to devour invading germs.

Stevia-seedlingsAmerican gardeners can grow stevia. Down South it would be treated as perennial that would need to be replaced every few years, and in other parts of the country it’s treated as an annual that would be planted in the spring after the last frost as with many vegetables and flowers.

There are amazingly 280 species of stevia that grow throughout North and South America. But only Stevia rebaudiana, is sweet.

Most people buy plants because he seeds are difficult to germinate for a home gardener.  They look similar to mints. Space them a foot apart, mulch, water once or twice a week and treat them as you would most of your vegetables. It can also be gown in containers.

The plant grows to 3 feet. You harvest the leaves as flowering begins around in midsummer to late fall when the sweetness peaks.  The leaves right off the plant are 15 times sweeter than table sugar. You can also dry and powder the one inch leaves and use them as you would use sugar.

A muffin and cookie recipe using stevia

Stevia seeds

Stevia Rebaudiana : Natures Sweet Secret

The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World’s Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs