Paraguay: Stevia and economic diversification

 

Paraguay, a nation located in the heart of South America, barely makes it in the news despite having a myriad of exciting agricultural products that are exclusively grown and harvested in its fertile soil.  As reported by establishment media in the U.S., most news coming out of Paraguay is sensationalistic and focused on the political transition from the government of former President Fernando Lugo, a leftist aligned with Venezuela’s anti-American Hugo Chavez, rather than its unprecedented economic growth. Part of that growth is due to the export of organic sugar and other sweetening agents such as stevia, which is being found more and more often on the shelves at American supermarkets. 
 
Sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, Paraguay is currently emerging as an exemplary organic food producer in the region as well as in a worldwide level.  In 2011, Paraguay was the largest exporter of organic sugar to the United States, with a quantity of approximately 35 thousand tons made available exclusively to U.S. consumers and food processing customers and enterprises.  Additionally, in November 2010, Paraguay exported five hundred tons of organic sugar to Belgium alone.   The country’s local economy heavily depends on the production of organic sugar, stevia, soy beans and sesame seed.  Paraguay has become the number one producer in the world of sesame seed. Sesame seed is abundant with B vitamins, various minerals such as iron, magnesium, potassium, copper and selenium. 
 
Another area of significant importance is the untapped mining sector which could attract foreign investments interested in further exploring and processing ilmenite and titanium ore. If Paraguay’s significant mineral resources could be combined with the country’s agricultural economy, it could be a turning point for diversifying Paraguay’s economy, and turn it into a regional mining leader in mining, even considering that Paraguay has recently encountered stumbling blocks in its trade with its partners in the MERCOSUR regional organization. The mining sector would give more leverage to Paraguay’s economy as well as raise the standard of living.
 
Stevia rebaudiana
 
According to well known Paraguayan journalist, Pedro Gómez Silgueira, his country is internationally known as a purveyor of “food for the world.”   This statement is even more accurate today than before, considering that rural Paraguay is known to be the land where Stevia rebaudiana was first discovered in 1899 by a Swiss botanist, Moisés de Santiago Bertoni.
 
Stevia is a member of the chrysanthemum family, and is native to eastern Paraguay in the Amanbay mountain range and the adjacent Parana State in Brazil. The daily use stevia by the Guarani people, the indigenous population of Paraguay, piqued Bertoni’s interest during his first visit to the country in the 1800s. As a result, he published studies in various publications that were very helpful in shedding more light on the native South American communities at the turn of the 20th century.  The Guaraní term for stevia is “Ka’a-he’ẽ” - meaning sweet plant – which is still used to sweeten “yerba mate” Ilex paraguayensis – which is related to holly – that is brewed as a green tea in South America as tonic. 
 
In recent decades, stevia has become a popular commodity in the developed world thanks to its high nutritional benefits: it is a naturally low calorie sweetener that is bolstered by  hundreds of phito-nutrients, minerals, vitamins, proteins and natural fibers. The natural sweet compounds in the stevia leaves are called diterpene glycosides or steviol glycosides.  Once dissolved and extracted, these natural elements are incredibly sweet, 150 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia tastes sweeter than honey yet it is no more fattening that pure water and safe to use by patients with diabetes.  Stevia is non-toxic and beneficial to people on a low-cal diet, and for those diagnosed with hypo- and hyperglycemia, hypertension. Stevia does not cause dental caries, as does sugar. Stevia has become a healthy choice among other sweeteners, such as cane and beetsugar, aspartames, saccharin, and other synthetics.
 
Since 2009, Coca-Cola in partnership with Cargill has used stevia sweetener for its low calorie soft drinks which were first introduced in the East Coast and Midwest American markets.  At the same time, Pepsi has also taken some steps towards re-branding its products and come out with drinks that use Splenda or other artificial sweeteners that are substantially incomparable to the health and dietary qualities that stevia has to offer.
 
Stevia can be used as a sweetener and as an herbal tea for its medicinal effects.   Stevia leaves are 20 to 30 times sweeter than cane sugar.  Stevia causes a significant effect on human taste buds without raising the level of blood sugar.  In addition, it provides zero calories for those on a diet.  The product is available in three forms: in a fresh leaf state, a dark green liquid concentrate, and a fluffy white concentrate powder.
 
Steviol glycosides are heat and pH stable, they do not ferment or darken upon cooking, therefore very useful in an array of foods and beverages.   Even though stevia has been  known in Europe and North America for only the last few years, Asian countries such as Japan and Korea have used these ultra refined extracts as a natural sugar substitute for over twenty years in carbonated drinks, fruit juices, health and sport drinks, yogurts, desserts and jellies, as well as snacks, candies, chocolates, pastries, noodles, rice wines, soy sauces, pickled vegetables, cookies and biscuits. Some manufacturers include: Asada, Asahi, Dong A, Kirin, Pokkari, Meiji, Nichirei, Lotte, Samyang, Nissin, Nattori and others.  Today, China grows 85% of the world’s consumption of stevia leaf.
 
Stevia is widely consumed in many countries of the world, including those in Asia mentioned above, including Australia, Canada and the United States, and the European Union. Consumption of stevia is projected to grow the U.S. - a country where over 25 million of children and adults or over 8 percent of the population is affected by diabetes, including children and youngsters. 

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