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'Sweet Herb' may Be Green Gold for Paraguay

Paraguay is hoping a small herb that is not trafficked, addictive, or even fattening, could to be prove the real thing that the food industry has been waiting for .

Stevia -- Latin name stevia rebaudiana bertoni -- has been used for centuries by the Guarani native people to sweeten their drinks, being 300 times sweeter than sugar with none of the calories.

Now the 60 centimeter high (24-inch) shrub has caught the eye of the granddaddy of soft drinks Coca Cola, and its poor, small Latin American home is hoping the cash tills will soon start ringing.

Coca Cola and Cargill, one of the top US food companies, recently unveiled plans to make a stevia-based sweetener under the trade name Rebiana.

And even though the herb is not yet authorized for consumption in the United States and has only a limited use in the European Union, it is already popular in Asia where China has planted thousands of hectares (acres) of rural land with the shrub.

"Coca-Cola's announcement has sparked a giant interest," said Nelson Gonzalez, head of the stevia chamber of commerce, a trade group of producers under the aegis of Paraguay's ministry of industry.

The market for stevia has grown in Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador in South America, as well as in China Japan and South Korea, but the US Food and Drug Administration has termed stevia an "unsafe food additive," while the European Union allows its sale only as a food supplement or in cosmetics.

"World demand is enormous," Gonzalez said. "But the sugar lobby wants to stop the importation of this natural, safe, revolutionary product."

Studies at the medical school at the University of Asuncion found stevia had a long list of beneficial properties, being an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and an anti-bacterial agent useful in the battle against diabetes, high blood pressure and tooth decay.

But it is finding it hard to shak e off fears over carcinogens which have dogged its sister, chemically manufactured sweetners, saccharine and aspartame.

In 10 years, plantations of stevia, which is native to northwest Paraguay, have grown from 350 to 1,500 hectares (865 to 3,700 acres).

Officials hope to increase that 10-fold over the next five years through cloning, which is more effective than planting the seeds.

However, the largest producer of stevia is not Paraguay, but China, which has 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) under cultivation.

Paraguay's stevia pioneer, the company Emporio Guarani, grows the plant and extracts the sweetener in its plant in Luque, 10 kilometers (six miles) outside Asuncion, and is not worried by China's influence on the market.

"The land of the stevia is right here," said manager Maria Teresa Aguilera, whose phone has not stopped ringing with calls from companies around the globe, following Coca-Cola's announcement.

"Thanks to our climate, we can raise three crops while China grows one," she said.

Besides its claims to safety, stevia has another advantage over aspartame: it is stable to 200 degrees C (390 degrees F) so it can be baked.

A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of stevia crystals, extracted from 12 kilograms (26 pounds) of leaf, is worth 40 to 100 dollars, depending on its purity.

Knowing that Paraguay, half of whose six million inhabitants live in poverty, may be sitting on a gold mine, authorities are now launching a bid to win international recognition as the stevia plant's country of origin.


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