Stevia as an Alternative Crop

from the Introduction to "Growing Stevia for Market" by Jeffrey Goettemoeller

Stevia rebaudiana is probably the sweetest plant on earth. Whole dried leaves taste about 12–15 times sweeter than cane sugar. Extracts of stevia’s sweet

glycosides can taste up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Yet stevia leaves are low-glycemic (slow to cause blood sugar swings), very low in calories,[1] and do not promote dental cavities.[2] One of the best research-based sources for information on the safety and efficacy of stevia is the European Stevia Center at:

Stevia’s glycosides are well suited for use in food and beverage products. An author writing for indicates some of the advantages of Rebaudioside A (one of stevia’s glycosides) as a food additive: “Unlike some other high-intensity sweeteners, Reb-A is light, heat and acid stable, which makes it ideal for acidic juice drinks and pasteurised dairy products.”[3]

With our craving for sweet treats, it is easy to see the potential of stevia as a commercial crop. Benefits of expanded stevia production could extend to the environment, economy, and farm income. Currently, sugar cane and corn syrup dominate the world sweetener market. Sugar cane and field corn occupy some of our best farmland. By shifting partially to stevia, we could free up these fields for production of other food products, biofuels, or other bioproducts.

Large-scale trials conducted by Kansas State University (US) resulted in a stevia dry leaf yield of 3285 lb/acre under irrigation.[4] Assuming dried stevia leaves have 12 times the sweetening power of sugar, that acre of stevia would produce the sweetening equivalent of about 39,420 lb. sugar. This is about seven times the average per-acre yield of Louisiana sugar cane in 2004.[5] In other words, an acre of Kansas stevia could replace the sweetening power of seven acres of Louisiana sugar cane. Those seven acres of sugar cane could then be turned into about 2669 gal. of high octane ethanol fuel.[6] This is a conservative estimate of stevia’s potential as a crop. Large-scale stevia cultivation is still in its infancy. New stevia varieties and improvements in agronomic practices will lift yields much higher. Based on small-scale trials at Davis, California, researcher Clinton Shock estimated an acre of stevia could yield the sweetening power equivalent of 56,000 lb. sucrose sugar.[7] This would represent 10 acres of Louisiana sugar cane.

Sugar cane and field corn require fertile soils and long, warm growing seasons. Stevia can produce good yields on soils and in climates not suited for standard row crops, and with far fewer pesticides and less fertilization per unit of sweetening power.

In some cases, stevia could replace crops such as tobacco and opium poppy. The soils, climate, equipment, and production skills needed for these crops could be applied to stevia. A study in Greece found stevia has low fertilization and pesticide requirements, and shows good potential for replacing tobacco as a farm crop. The study also found the irrigation requirements for stevia are 30%–40% of those for tobacco.[8] Conducted by the University of Thessaly, this study involved large-scale trials in multiple regions of Greece.

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[1] A 2004 study confirmed stevia leaf is lower in calories than aspartame, much sweeter than sucrose, and has a lower glycemic index as compared to sucrose. See S.M. Savita and others, “Stevia rebaudiana—A Functional Component for Food Industry,” Journal of Human Ecology 15, no. 4 (2004): 261–264.

[2] A University Of Illinois College Of Dentistry study found that neither Stevioside nor Rebaudioside A (the main sweet glycosides in stevia) was cariogenic (promoting of dental cavities) under the conditions of the study. See S. A. Das and others, “Evaluation of the Cariogenic Potential of the Intense Natural Sweeteners Stevioside and Rebaudioside A,” Caries Research 26, no. 5 (1992): 363.

[3] Elaine Watson, “EFSA opinion paves way for EU approval of stevia-based sweeteners,”, April 14, 2010.

[4] Rhonda Janke, Farming a Few Acres of Herbs: Stevia (Kansas StateUniversity, 2004).

[5] Based on a sugar yield of 5527 pounds per harvested acre of sugar cane as reported by the Louisiana State University AgCenter web site in 2010.

[6] Based on deriving 135.4 gallons of ethanol per short ton of raw sugar as reported in Hosein Shapouri and Michael Salassi, “The Economic Feasibility of Ethanol Production from Sugar in the United States,” USDA (July 2006).

[7] Clinton C. Shock, “Rebaudi’s Stevia: natural noncaloric sweeteners,”California Agriculture, September–October 1982.

[8] Επιμέλεια: Αλίκη Φωτιάδου. “Κερδίζει έδαφος στη Θεσσαλία η καλλιέργεια της στέβιας.” TAHYDROMOS, 2009. [Alice Fotiadou, ed., “Gaining ground in Thessaly growing Stevia”]