Stevia rebaudiana bertoni, also known simply as "stevia" and as "sweetleaf" whose extracts have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar. It is slowly becoming a popular sugar alternative in the US (it already is widely used in Japan), although the FDA has not approved it as such - here it can only be sold as a "nutritional supplement." It is also banned for use as a "food" in Singapore and Hong Kong.
The Coca Cola Company is hoping to change that. Coca Cola Company working jointly with Cargill is developing a sweetner called Rebiana with the intention of gaining FDA approval in the US and marketing it in our country and throughout the European Union. What grassroots groups have been trying to do for year (legalize stevia as a sweetner), these two companies probably have the political muscle to get the job done.
For centuries, the herb as been used in Paraguay and Brazil by the Guarani tribes as a sweetner in their yerba mate and for medicinal purposes. As for the latter, promising studies have been done showing the usefulness of stevia in treating obesity and high blood pressure, as well as enhancing glucose tolerance.
In Japan, stevia has been widely used since the 70s and can be found in Coca Cola and other soft drinks purchased in that country, as well as packaged for table use.
Once upon a time, a 1985 study indicated that a mutagen causing liver damage could occure from the breakdown of two of the sweet steviol glycosides BUT that study was criticzed for mishandling of data in such away that even distilled water could appear as mutagenic. Newer studies have shown no saftey issues. Recent data compiled by the World Health Organization suggested that policies to ban stevia as a food were obsolete.
I personally think the biggest hurdle that stevia has had towards acceptance in the US is that it is NATURALLY occurring. Therefore, no patent is required to produce it and no one saw the potential for their pockets to be handsomely lined. Enter, Cargill, a multinational corporation whose business activities include purchasing, processing, and distributing grain and other agricultural commodities, and the manufacture and sale of livestock feed and ingredients for processed foods and pharmaceuticals. With more and more people worried about the effects of aspartame and unsure of Splenda, the sweet smell of monetary incentive must've opened their eyes to limitless possibilities. After all if you can label something "natural" there is a huge demographic that you will be reaching.
Currently, stevia is cultivated and used for food in South America, much of east Asia (including China, Tawain, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand), and Israel. In Ontario, Canada it has been grown on an experimental basis to test its feasibility as a large scale commercial crop.
An interesting tidbit of information: Purdue University's Dental Science Research Group has concluded that Stevioside is both fluo-ride compatible and "significantly" inhibits the development of plaque, thus Stevia may actually help to prevent cavities.
Another tidbit: Stevia doesn't work too well in meringues because it does not carmelize as sugar does.
As for me, I use stevia in small amounts. I'm trying to avoid Splenda as much as possible. I already avoid Aspartame like the plague. I *have* to have Sweet n' Low in my decaf coffee...nothing else tastes right. Putting stevia in there is utterly horrible. For some reason, mixed with coffee, it takes on a licorice-like flavor. ICK. Bleech. Yuk. It seems to be fine in iced tea and is also great in my protein shakes. I'm currently buying a whey protein powder that is sweetened with stevia. I've also had a protein bars by Bio-Chem that use stevia and found them to be very good.
I'd be concerned to use anything in large amounts... I'm sure the original users of stevia were not such sweet-toothed pigs as consumers are today. Guzzling down massive quantities of the stuff in soft drinks may be telling as far as safety is concerned.