The year was 1545.
The Spanish galleon sliced through the muddy waters of the Paraná River deep in the interior of the South American wilderness.
Expedition leader Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca scanned the densely forested shoreline, a terrain uncharted by his people. This land known as the Río de la Plata was rich with exotic plants, animals and indigenous tribes including the Guarani people.
As Cabeza de Vaca and his men anchored their ships, Guarani men and women emerged from the forest bearing gifts—fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants unknown to the visitors. Among the offerings was a leafy green shrub with serrated edges.
The Guarani gestured enthusiastically, signaling its value.
When a Spanish sailor curiously chewed the leaves, his eyes lit up with delight.
The leaves had a clean, sweet taste that reminded him of honey! The Guarani uttered “ka’a he’ê” to explain the shrub’s use.
Cabeza de Vaca recorded the phrase in his log as “yerba dulce” or “sweet herb.”
The Spanish had discovered stevia, though the origins lie with the Guarani who had treasured it for generations.
This fateful meeting of cultures unlocked stevia’s secret existence outside South America. In time, yerba dulce would journey far beyond the New World as a promising sugar substitute—one small leaf holding wondrous sweetness.
Stevia is a natural sweetener that comes from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant native to Paraguay and Brazil in South America.
For hundreds of years, the Guarani peoples of modern-day Paraguay and surrounding regions have cultivated and revered this sweet-tasting plant.
The Guarani gave the plant the name "ka'a he'ê" meaning "sweet herb", a testament to its unique ability to impart a sweet flavor without calories.
The prized plant was also known as "caa-jhê" or "honey leaf", reflecting its unequaled capacity to sweeten foods and beverages with no bitter aftertaste.
For centuries, Guarani shamans and healers have used stevia medicinally to aid digestion, lower blood pressure, and treat diabetes.
The leaves were chewed or dried and infused into teas to unlock the plant's healing essence and sweetness.
The legacy of stevia runs deep for the Guarani people.
It is not just a sweetener but also a sacred gift of nature with the ability to heal the body and delight the senses. The Guarani's time-honored traditions of cultivating stevia and using it as a versatile sugar substitute have endured into modern times.
Though stevia has exploded in popularity globally, its origins will forever remain rooted in the ancient, ancestral lands of the Guarani, for whom this sweet herb nourished communities and connected generations.
The Guarani's steadfast reverence for stevia is a testament to their deep ties to the biodiversity of their homeland and traditional plant wisdom passed down since time immemorial.
The name "stevia" is derived from the indigenous Guarani term "ka'a he'ê", meaning "sweet herb". To the Guarani peoples of Paraguay, this celebrated plant was known as "caa-jhê" translating to "honey leaf"—a fitting descriptor for its delightfully sweet essence.
The earliest recorded use of "ka'a he'ê" appears in writings from Spanish colonizers who learned of the plant while conquering South America in the 1500s.
Transliterated into Spanish, it became "yerba dulce" or "sweet herb", invoking the Guarani phrase.
The term evolved through the lens of each culture stevia reached.
Japanese scientists in the 1930s coined the name "stevia" based on the Latin name for the plant, Stevia rebaudiana. This new name would finally allow the herb's reputation to spread worldwide.
While the Guarani's "ka'a he'ê" was introduced to the Spanish as “yerba dulce”, the English-speaking world would come to know it as simply “stevia."
Regardless of its name across continents and languages, the sweetness emanating from this plant's leaves has transcended borders, cultures, and generations.
Though Guarani's original “caa-jhê” may not be widely used today, it pays homage to the rich history of indigenous peoples whose deep knowledge of native plants allowed stevia’s gifts to first be revealed.
For the Guarani peoples of South America, the stevia plant was revered not only for its sweet taste but for its potent healing properties.
These indigenous communities carefully safeguarded their traditional knowledge of stevia's medicinal uses, passing it from one generation to the next through oral histories.
The Guarani used stevia to treat many ailments, including heartburn, hypertension, and diabetes.
Their healers would prepare treatments from the leaves, either chewing them directly or drying them to brew into teas. Consumed consistently, stevia became a primary botanical remedy for digestion issues, high blood pressure, and blood sugar control.
Modern research has validated much of this ancestral wisdom, attributing stevia's therapeutic effects to its unique compounds called steviol glycosides. These compounds exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects that may account for the wide-ranging medicinal benefits observed by the Guarani.
While stevia has gained fame as a natural sweetener, its legacy as a sacred medicinal plant among indigenous communities must not be forgotten.
The Guarani were among the first to discover stevia's versatile healing gifts—traditional knowledge that heralded the arrival of a botanical wonder and its eventual spread around the world.
Their generational relationship with the "honey leaf" laid the groundwork for how stevia is used both to sweeten and to heal today.
While the Guarani had used stevia for centuries, it was not until 1931 that the plant came under modern scientific investigation.
That year, two French chemists, Moses Bridel and R. Lavieille, published the first studies isolating and examining the sweet compounds in stevia leaves.
Intrigued by early accounts of stevia's sweetening power, Bridel and Lavieille obtained samples of the leaf and conducted chemical extraction experiments.
They successfully isolated a novel crystalline compound they named "stevioside", which they determined was the primary glycoside responsible for stevia's sweet taste.
This groundbreaking work provided the first scientific understanding of how stevia is able to sweeten without calories or carbohydrates.
Bridel and Lavieille had unlocked the centuries-old secret held by indigenous peoples about the enticing sweet molecules hidden within the unassuming stevia leaf.
Thanks to these pioneering French chemists, the scientific foundation was laid for future research into stevia's full chemical composition and biological effects.
Their illuminating discovery in 1931 set the stage for stevia's emergence as a mainstream natural sweetener decades later, allowing its ancient wisdom to be proven through modern science.
While stevia's origins trace back to South America, it was not until the 1960s that it found mass adoption as a commercial sweetener.
Japan, in particular, became enamored with the non-caloric natural sweetness of stevia leaves.
By the 1960s, Japanese researchers had confirmed the safety and potency of steviol glycosides isolated from stevia as a sugar substitute.
This prompted Japanese corporations to begin cultivating stevia plantations and using extracted stevia glycosides to sweeten a variety of foods and beverages.
Thanks to relentless promotion and product innovation, Japan witnessed a surge in stevia demand through the 1970s and 1980s.
By the 1980s, stevia had captured an astonishing 40% of Japan's sweetener market, becoming a beloved part of the nation's food culture.
The meteoric rise of stevia in Japan demonstrated the global potential of this once-obscure Paraguayan plant.
No longer an indigenous secret, stevia was now a nutritional powerhouse sweetener appreciated by millions.
While stevia’s sweet properties were known for centuries, it was not feasible as a mass market sugar substitute until modern extraction techniques were developed.
In the early 20th century, new technologies emerged that allowed for efficient isolation of stevia’s sweet compounds on a large scale.
Building on the initial research of Bridel and Lavieille, scientists devised methods using solvents, filtration, and crystallization to separate and purify steviol glycosides from the leaves.
This yielded a highly concentrated, purified white powder containing the main sweet constituents of stevia.
With these enhanced extraction capabilities, stevia could transition from a folk remedy to a commercially viable natural sweetener. Japan led the charge in the 1970s with purified stevia extracts used in foods and beverages.
The evolution of extraction technology liberated stevia from its humble medicinal past and into the mainstream as an herbal alternative to sugar.
By unlocking the economic potential of the leaf at industrial scales, stevia was ready to sweeten foods across the globe, from Paraguay to Japan and beyond.
Stevia’s path to acceptance in the United States faced a major obstacle in 1991 when the FDA abruptly banned its use in foods over concerns about potential side effects. This dealt a blow to stevia’s burgeoning popularity worldwide.
The FDA cited early studies linking crude stevia extracts to possible mutagenicity, reproductive issues and other toxic effects. This led to a ban on adding stevia to any food products sold in the U.S. despite its widespread use in Japan and South America.
In 2008, after considerable additional research exonerating stevia, the FDA granted GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status to purified steviol glycosides from the leaf.
This long-awaited decision finally opened the door to the use of stevia as a sweetener and flavor enhancer in the United States.
By overcoming the stigma of the 1991 ban through rigorous scientific evaluation, stevia ultimately emerged victorious as federal regulators recognized its safety and utility as a sugar substitute.
Its U.S. approval cemented stevia’s hard-won status as a legitimate tool for reducing calories and sugar without sacrificing sweetness.
In 2007, before stevia was approved for use in foods in the U.S., two corporate giants began working to bring a new stevia-derived sweetener to market.
The Coca-Cola Company partnered with agribusiness leader Cargill to develop a consumer stevia product in anticipation of the FDA's pending decision.
Combining Coca-Cola's distribution clout with Cargill's stevia cultivation and extraction capabilities, they created Truvia, blending purified steviol glycosides from stevia leaves with erythritol.
With a sugar-like taste and no bitter aftertaste, Truvia promised to be the leading retail stevia sweetener.
True to their ambitions, within a year of the FDA giving stevia GRAS status in 2008, Coca-Cola and Cargill launched Truvia as one of the first mass market stevia-based sugar substitutes on American grocery store shelves.
The story of Truvia exemplifies stevia’s transformation from a niche product to a blockbuster ingredient embraced by food and beverage giants like Coca-Cola.
Their prescient investments and innovative blending ultimately helped stevia go mainstream.
Though stevia had gained traction in certain parts of the world, it faced deeper skepticism in Europe over its safety as a food additive. But after years of accumulating favorable evidence, the tide turned in stevia’s favor.
While Japan and South America embraced stevia, Europe adopted a cautious approach in evaluating this novel sweetener. Previous concerns that certain steviol glycosides could have detrimental effects initially kept approval at bay.
However, as more extensive studies emerged confirming the safety of purified stevia extracts, a shifting regulatory outlook took hold.
In 2010, stevia finally achieved its breakthrough moment, as the European Union authorized the use of steviol glycosides in food products sold across the continent.
This hard-fought European approval opened up an expansive new market for stevia-based sweeteners.
What was once a sweet herb solely appreciated by indigenous South Americans had now charmed food safety agencies and consumers worldwide. A
fter doubts and delays, stevia had officially gone global.