Stevia is an intensely sweet-tasting, zero-calorie plant extract that’s gained interest as a replacement for sugar. (1) It’s spiked in popularity in recent years, thanks to its reputation as being a more “natural” sweetener compared with common lab-made artificial sweeteners. (It comes from a leaf extract.) Stevia is now an ingredient in 14,500 foods and beverages worldwide, according to the PureCircle Stevia Institute. (2) You’ll find the sweetener widely available under many brand names in the store for use at home, including Stevia in the Raw, PureVia, SweetLeaf, Pyure, Wholesome!, and Splenda Naturals, which now makes its own version of Stevia.
What Is Stevia Exactly, and How Is the Sweetener Made?
Stevia, or Stevia rebaudiana, is a plant native to South America. (3) People there have been consuming the leaves as a source of sweetness for hundreds of years, according to an article published in May 2015 in the journal Nutrition Today. (4) It became popular as a sweetener in Japan in the 1970s, but it hadn’t been a leading sweetener in the United States until a decade ago. Today, the extract is widely popular as a zero-calorie sugar alternative. Most notably, stevia is very potent; it’s 200 to 350 times sweeter than sugar. (3)
Because stevia is added to thousands of products, reading the ingredient label will tell you if stevia is included. Still, it does go by many names, which can sometimes make pinpointing its presence tricky. Here are the ones to look for, according to PureCircle:
- High-purity stevia
- Stevia extract
- Stevia leaf extract
- Steviol glycosides
- Steviol glycosides (E960)
- Rebaudioside A (Reb A)
A Closer Look at How Stevia Is Made
Unlike artificial sweeteners, which are made in a lab, stevia does come from plant leaves. But it needs to be processed before it gets to your table or in your food — it’s not likely you’re eating the leaf itself. According to Truvia, a brand of stevia that runs the website Stevia.com, the leaves are first harvested, dried, and steeped in hot water. (5) The liquid is then filtered and spun to make an extract from the intensely sweet components of the leaf called steviol glycosides. It’s then blended with any number of additives, like dextrose or maltodextrin, to cut the intense sweetness so that it can be easily incorporated into foods.