Why should we make Stevia our future?

By Javier Sainz
Stevia Federation of the Americas.

Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni, or Ka’a he’e, as it is traditionally known to the indigenous people of Paraguay, is an incredible, adaptable plant, capable of thriving in wildly varying environments across the globe. Stevia is now grown on the equator, in Canada and even as far afield as Northern China.

Not only is Stevia able to thrive at these wildly differing latitudes, but it is also able to adapt to fit the climate in which it grows. When Stevia is grown at tropical latitudes, it is a thick, bushy plant which can be harvested up to 6 times per season. When it grows further north, it is shrub-like and can grow up to 1.6 metres, harvesting only twice. The latitude also appears to dictate the levels of phenolic compounds, which have diverse prebiotic components, as well as various essential oils, unique to the region in which it is grown.

Beyond simply appearing different, it also synthesises different compounds to create a powerful form of natural sweetness – a phenomenon that is still being understood. A single stevia plant can produce up to 23% of its dry weigh in steviol glycosides, and as nothing more than secondary metabolites. Combined with its versatility, stevia is an ideal crop in traditional sugar-producing regions, the increased sugar currency means that a single hectare of stevia is equal to 20 hectares of cane sugar.

Plants as naturally potent as stevia are uncommon in nature – the production of secondary metabolites that are not related to the structural function of the plant in particular. Despite the incredible abilities of stevia – and despite a numerous studies and reviews, the exact reason why the stevia plant is so powerful remains somewhat of a mystery (Ceunen and Geuns, 2013).

Out of a total of 20,000 edible plants, only 6,000 have historically been used as food. In the modern era, fewer than 200 now make a major contribution to food production, and of those 200, just nine account for two thirds of food production (Croptrust). Biodiversity is essential to life on earth, promoting additional flora, fauna and microbiota that form part of a sustainable world (Martín-Lopez).

Biodiversity is important in commercial food production for several reasons. A diverse range of plant and animal species can help to ensure food security by providing a variety of options for farmers to grow and raise. This can be especially important in areas where certain crops or livestock may be more susceptible to disease or changes in weather patterns. Biodiversity can also help to improve the overall productivity and sustainability of food production systems. Cultivating a diverse range of plants in a crop rotation can improve soil health and fertility, reduce pest and disease pressure, and increase overall yields.

There is also a role to play in protecting the environment. Incorporating a diversity of plants and animals in agricultural systems can help to promote pollination, control pests, and protect soil and water resources. In essence, expanding our palates beyond what has become the norm offers a chance to improve not only our own health (and combat the obesity epidemic) but also to help repopulate animal species and to lessen the impact of climate change.

But biodiversity is often determined by economic importance, meaning that only profitable crops are permitted to be cultivated. One example of this is quinoa (Chenopodium Wild). A key nutritious pseudo-cereal traditionally grown by the Incas in the Andean region, it was adapted from the high mountain altitudes in Peru and Bolivia into the sea level valleys in Chile, before being totally abandoned for centuries because of the takeover by other crops like corn, wheat, and soy. Before recent interest resumed, average yields of 350 kg/ha were obtained in the Andes, while test plots have achieved yields above 9000 kg/ ha. As an ingredient, quinoa was almost forgotten until it was rescued because of its rich amino-acid profile and other bioactive compounds.

Recently, the possibility of producing the sweetness molecules through GMO microorganisms using sugar and corn derivatives as a carbon source, has become a commercial reality. In such a model, the stevia crop could be totally substituted. Avoiding the stevia crop on behalf of sourcing steviol glycosides from traditional crops seems to us a major decision that is likely to shape the future of our industry. This ultimately makes it necessary to choose whether we believe that biodiversity is important, or whether the convenience of continuing to grow just commercially viable staple crops such as wheat, soya and sugar is worth the long-term damage, if it yields the same traditional comforts to consumers and producers.

There is intrinsic value in the crop development of stevia, rather than solely in the attributes of it sweetness molecules. The stevia plant is potentially the most efficient natural producer of sweetness on Earth. Its sweetness is non-caloric, has been proven to have no negative effects on human microbiota and is digested to become non-sweet molecules (steviol). It has proven positive cell mechanisms, pancreatic beta-cell metabolism, and synergistic effects in high glycemic blood levels (Philliphaert et al, 2017), as well as being capable of replacing significant amounts of sugar in almost every formulation of traditionally high-sugar products.

The crop itself is highly adaptable. It reaches maturity within one season and can be grown in a range of latitudes. This is a significant property when considering crop adaptability, improvement, climate change and even crop rotation. As a result of its intense sweetness, the transport of stevia extract is significantly more efficient than other low intensity sweeteners. The stevia crop is currently grown actively in Africa, Asia, America and in parts of Europe and Oceania.

As shown by the Jarma group of Colombia, the metabolism of the stevia plant is optimized under enriched CO2 environments, a fact which has encouraging adaptive attributes for our changing environment – and even potential usage to counteract rising levels of CO2 in our environment (Pompelli et al, 2022).

Given increasing water shortages across the world, growing crops to create food that requires less irrigation and consumes more CO2 has obvious benefit. Likewise, decreasing the acreage of land required for commercial crop cultivation (and by extension the highly expensive and polluting systems to protect and harvest them) a more sustainable footprint can be created.

From nutritional point of view, when stevia is digested by our bodies, it does not trigger the same insulin responses as sugar, and it is not high in calories, despite the sweet flavour. Science is now beginning to understand the potential of this once-overlooked leaf, and to harness its power – presenting a tantalising glimpse of what our future could look like if we adopt stevia as an alternative crop to reduce partially our sugar dependence.

As well as providing a healthier and more sustainable form of sweetness, stevia leaves and stems include steviol glycosides, phenolic compounds such as chlorogenic acid, essential oils, inulin and several di- and tri-terpene compounds, which benefits human, environmental, crop and animal health. These compounds are still being actively discovered and characterized (Purkayashta et al, 2017), and to fail to expand on these exciting discoveries feels like a potential mistake.

Coming back to the recent technologies expanding the potential of the stevia industry. It is not a discussion of wheter or not biotechnology is useful or not for the stevia industry, but which should be its role in the whole supply chain. Biotechnology can be used for the improvement of the stevia plant, as well as for the improvement of the sweetness quality of the molecules produced by the plant. Biotechnology can be used as well to bypass the function of the plant, when it comes to produce sweetness. Our question is, should biotechnology be used to bypass and discard the stevia crop as the ultimate source of these sweet molecules? Should we discard the different services of the plant beyond its sweet molecules?

We do not feel that biotechnology is an enemy of the agricultural industry – but quite the contrary. A simple but dramatic example is the impact of genetic transformation in the banana or plantain, controlling the spread of Black Sigatoka disease (Soares et al, 2021). In this case, gene modifications and gene editing replaced up to 70 doses of the various pesticides applied systematically to banana crops every year, with deleterious environmental impact (Fu et al, 2019).

Biotechnology could be used to further enhance stevia too, as it has already been used to create drought resistance crops. Under the sever climate change we are experiencing, the alteration of Drought Escape (DE) pathways, osmo-protectant synthesis and flowering modulation could make the difference in the survival of our species – especially in more extreme climates (Martignano et al, 2020).

When it comes to adjusting the delicious properties of the sweetness molecules, biotechnology has proved a powerful tool for producing specific enzymes which facilitate a precise fine tuning of the quality of the sweetness produced by this natural powerhouse.

Therefore, while it is technically possible to produce the sweet molecules native to the stevia plant through the development of specific GMO microorganisms’ strains, the downside of replacing the stevia plant as a source of this natural sweetness seems to us to be discarding a massive tool, which encourages biodiversity while producing sustainable and efficient natural sweetness through plants.

The food production industry has a duty to ensure that it leads the fight in public health, and that it remains sustainable at time when both have never been more important to humanity. We should, then, ask ourselves: Why do we not adopt the stevia plant as a main character of our industry and put biotechnology at its service? Why do we not make the decision to embrace this natural wonder of the world?

We wish you a fantastic 2023!


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