A tiny, prototype house used to display that urban dwellers can grow much of their own food has proven a single plant can play a big role in the reduction of refined sugar consumption.

In Fair Play, Missouri, a team at the Institute of Simplified Hydroponics has grown stevia, a natural sweetener, at the 220-square-foot home. They found numerous health issues were avoided by substituting it for refined sugars. A number of other benefits, including economic, were also realized.

In the North American diet, sweeteners, usually supplied by refined white sugar derived from sugar cane and sugar beet, are recognized as being the leading factors for chronic diseases such as diabetes and tooth decay. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average person consumes 129 pounds of refined sugar annually. Another source of sweetener, often found in processed foods and beverages, is high-fructose corn syrup, which has also been linked to several chronic diseases.

An inspiration for the project came from an unexpected source. Looking for alternatives, an idea emerged while the team was in Peru. During a filming session on Inca agricultural terraces of the Andes, a local farmer picked some stevia leaf growing wild and handed leaves to the film crew. He pointed out it was used as a sweetener and medicine by the local people. When asked what the medicine was used for, he enthusiastically replied, “Everything!”

Stevia is a staple of the Guarani people of South America, who have used it for 1,500 years as their diet sweetener. Stevia rebaudiana was first identified for the developed world by Santiago Bertoni, a Swiss botanist, in 1899.

Hydroponic Experiments with Stevia

In the first season with stevia plants at the prototype house, the team found that one square meter of growing space is all that is required for the sweetener needs of one person. This allows for harvesting six to eight springs of stevia each day, and the three-inch springs can be used with other herbs for daily tea. The herbal teas are served hot and replace sugar beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages. As stevia, like most herbs, is calorie-free, using stevia as the replacement for sweetness eliminated the daily 28 teaspoons of sugar, or 450 calories.

Stevia can be grown from seed, but like some herbs, it is difficult to germinate and slow to grow, so the other option is purchasing plants from a plant nursery. The stevia plant is a perennial that can live for several years in a hydroponic system. For the project, stevia is grown in hydroponic culture using our bloom formula, which is a reduced nitrogen modified Steiner formula. Their plants are now about a foot tall after six months of growth and harvest, and they can grow to about three feet tall. When that happens, one square meter will hold about four plants.

Also, if growing outdoors, stevia is a tropical plant and needs a frost-free environment, so winter growth requires climate control. Individual plants can be placed in 12-inch diameter pots and grown indoors as decorative plants.

Switching from Sugar to Stevia

According to studies, the average North American is getting about 60 per cent of their daily sweeteners from beverages, so switching to stevia-sweetened beverages could reduce sugar intake by more than half. Baked goods are also a leading source of refined sugar consumption. In most recipes, dried or fresh stevia can replace sugar. The need for sugar in baked goods is further reduced by replacing flour with sweet potato. About 25 per cent of flour can usually be exchanged with sweet potato, further reducing the needs for sweetener.

In the US, the whole stevia leaf is not yet allowed in processed food. However, it is legal for homeowners to grow and use stevia for their own use. Naturally, the $97-billion sugar industry has fought the introduction of stevia, so it is not yet a serious marketplace competitor here. In Japan, however, it is widely used. And while stevia doesn’t necessarily have verified direct diet-related medical benefits, by using it in place of sugar, the average person can remove 450 calories a day from their diet, equal to a pound of excess weight every week.

Stevia as a Treatment

One of the many papers on research of stevia suggests a possible treatment for Lyme disease. One report shows that using whole leaf stevia extract can kill the agent of Lyme disease in petri dishes. It appears as effective as antibiotics in treating live bacteria, though stevia goes one step further. Antibiotics do not recognize or kill the cysts of bacteria or the bacteria that hide under a protective cover called biofilm. These other forms of bacteria can resurface into active bacteria, leading to relapse. According to this paper, whole stevia extract will also kill the cyst and biofilm-protected bacteria, whereas the antibiotics do not. This remarkable research implies that stevia might be useful in chronic Lyme disease, malaria, and other infections that reoccur. This has huge implications for human health, but, admittedly, it is a long way from human trials.

Environmental Benefits

Current agricultural practices require 65 gallons of water a day to produce 28 ounces of sugar. A square meter of stevia requires half a gallon of nutrient water a day, a daily savings of 64.5 gallons. Over the course of a year, one square meter of stevia requires 182 gallons of water while 28 ounces of sugar requires more than 23,000 gallons.

Sugar cane and sugar beet are now grown on 74 million acres of land in 120 countries. Sugar is produced at the rate of 4.5 tons per acre of land, or about one pound per square yard. At this rate, it takes 129 square yards to produce each person’s sugar requirement. The annual production is 375 million tons a year. The World Wildlife Fund claims sugar production may be responsible for more loss of diversity that any other crop on the planet due to heavy needs for water and soil-based chemical fertilizers.

The environmental impacts of using refined sugar include the agricultural runoff, the impact of sugar refining, and transportation. There are also human rights issues for agricultural workers producing sugar crops, especially in developing countries. All of that can be eliminated for the person who switches to growing their own fresh herb.

Easy to grow, stevia is an excellent replacement for refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and it offers many indirect health benefits in the form of a tasty sweetener in baking and in beverages. For people on a tight budget, it should be considered to help reduce grocery costs by eliminating sodas and unhealthy snack purchases. Environmentally, homegrown stevia can reduce water consumption, reduce arable land consumption, improve crop diversity, reduce harmful fertilizer use, and address human rights issues. With further research, it is possible that many medicinal benefits will also be realized through this versatile and healthy plant.