Natural Sweeteners: Not All The Same, And Not All Good For You

Stevia has been available in the United States, as a zero-calorie natural sweetener, for well over ten years.

However, many Americans may know it best as a punch line in the revered TV show Breaking Bad – with somewhat-sympathetic drug kingpin Walter White murdering an associate by poisoning “that Stevia crap” she used regularly.

Natural sweeteners like Stevia, and artificial sweeteners like sucralose, are growing rapidly in popularity. The global market for sugar substitutes is around $15 billion annually. However, that’s still dwarfed by the worldwide sugar market, which is estimated to hit about $45 billion by the year 2027.

Natural sweeteners make up about two-thirds of all sugar substitute consumption, and their sales are expected to grow at an annual rate of nearly 4% per year over the next seven years.

“Natural sweetener” used to refer to time-honored substitutes like honey, but the increasing popularity of zero-calorie alternatives like stevia and monk fruit extract is triggering a rapid increase in the use of these all-natural, “non-nutritive” sweeteners.

With so many alternatives now available, it’s a good idea to understand the differences between the different types of natural sweeteners.

We can help with that.

The Problem(s) with Sugar

The search for safe and effective sugar substitutes began nearly 150 years ago with the early use of saccharin. It continued through the 20th century cyclamate, aspartame and sucralose “eras.” All of those products, sold under brand names like Sweet ‘N Low, Equal, Nutrasweet and Splenda, had one thing in common: they weren’t natural. They were all artificial sweeteners. (To be fair, most are still around today.)

Why has there been a continuing push to find substitutes for sweet, delicious sugar? We all know the answer: the refined sugar we’re all familiar with isn’t very good for you, and it can be a major factor in weight gain.

Our moms always told us that – even though most of them probably didn’t base their advice (or their scolding) on scientific evidence. There’s lots of that evidence to back them up, though.

  • Increased sugar consumption, particularly the added sugar in carbonated soft drinks, is largely to blame for the increasing epidemic of obesity in America.
  • A related problem is caused by the large amount of the simple sugar fructose in sodas and snacks; fructose increases the brain’s desire for more food.
  • Excess sugar consumption promotes the development of type 2 diabetes.
  • Diets high in sugar are statistically linked to the development of heart disease, because sugar has been shown to increase blood sugar levels, triglycerides levels, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and bodily inflammation.
  • High levels of sugar consumption are associated with a higher risk of depression.
  • Sugar is directly responsible for most cases of tooth decay.

There’s a lot more, including faster aging and increased cancer risk, but that’s probably enough evidence to make the case. Sugar – particularly added sugar – isn’t good for you.

That’s why the emergence of so many artificial sugar alternatives was so exciting in the mid-to-late 1900s. Unfortunately, they aren’t very good for you either.

The Problem(s) with Artificial Sweeteners

Ask people if artificial sweeteners (often called high-intensity sweeteners) are healthy or unhealthy, and many will undoubtedly cite cancer concerns.

In reality, those concerns aren’t justified by science. They originated, in large part, from 1970s studies that linked saccharin to the development of bladder cancer in lab rats. As it turns out, humans process saccharin differently than rats do and there really was no danger. The warning label that was attached to saccharin packages in 1977 was removed about twenty-five years later.

Also to blame: the sweetener cyclamate, which was linked with cancer in some lab studies and has been banned in the U.S. since 1969. Those controversial studies have never been replicated, and cyclamate remains legal in more than 100 countries including the U.K.

There have been unproven claims involving the cancer-causing potential of other artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration describes all of the ones currently on the market – saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, advantame, neotame and sucralose – as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).

So what’s the problem? Apparently it has more to do with the brain than the rest of the body.

Health experts warn of something we like to call the “Diet Coke phenomenon” – people who order a diet soda with their fattening, fat-laden meal. The experts say those who use sugar-free artificial sweeteners may be more likely to think they have the “green light” to eat other calorie-laden foods. That can, in turn, lead to weight gain instead of weight loss. The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association recommend limiting the use of artificial sweeteners for that reason.

There’s one other risk. Research suggests that sugar substitutes can overwhelm the brain’s sugar receptors because they’re so much sweeter than cane sugar. That can “teach” the brain to favor super-sweet foods instead of healthier, less-sweet foods like fruits and vegetables.

Whatever the reasons, numerous studies report that swapping sugar for artificial sweeteners doesn’t help people lose weight. Most actually gain weight instead.

Natural sweeteners appear to be better alternatives.

What are Natural Sweeteners?

Concerns about sugar and artificial sweeteners have led to a marked increase in consumption of “natural” sweeteners.

Of course, you might consider sugar a natural sweetener. After all, it’s just sucrose (a combination of the natural sugars glucose and fructose), extracted from natural sources like sugar cane, sugar beets and corn. However, the refined brown or white sugar that we consume every day is heavily processed with chemicals before it gets to our table or into our foods.

The juice from sugar cane or beets is filtered, turned into syrup and then crystallized – meaning the vitamins and minerals are virtually all removed when table sugar is made. In other words, refined sugar is way past the “natural” stage. Unhealthy high-fructose corn syrup is sweetened even more, by chemically changing much of its glucose into fructose with the help of enzymes. It’s even less natural. 

So if “natural sugar” isn’t really a natural sweetener. What is? Generally speaking, natural sweeteners are sugars which haven’t been chemically refined, and haven’t been stripped of all their nutritional value.

Here’s one example. Think about sweetening a cup of tea with raw honey, straight from the farm. That sweetener is just about as natural as you can get.

Some natural sweeteners, though, are more natural than others. And the FDA’s definition of “natural” doesn’t help; it only says that a natural product can’t contain artificial ingredients, and it can only be “processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.”

That leaves the door wide open for companies to call almost anything natural – including sweeteners.

Let’s try to sort out the products that are typically called natural sweeteners, and figure out how natural they are. More importantly, let’s look at how healthy they are.

They fall into several categories.

Natural Caloric Sweeteners

That’s a fancy name for the stuff we might ordinarily think of as natural – sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and fruit juice.

The big problem with them is in the second word of their category name, though: caloric. If you use these sugar alternatives in order to avoid the calories and carbs in sugar, you’re going to be severely disappointed.

Honey

Honey is more fructose than glucose, so it certainly isn’t bad for you, particularly if you have a sore throat. It contains a limited amount of nutrients (vitamins and minerals), but more important are its flavonoids and phenolic acids which provide strong antibacterial and antioxidant properties. We’ll be mentioning antioxidants a lot, so we’ll only specify their health benefits once: they help to prevent oxidative damage to the body’s cells, making them a key weapon against inflammation and diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Here’s the problem. Honey contains 21 calories per teaspoon compared to sugar’s 16 calories, and six grams of carbs compared to sugar’s four. And while its glycemic index is slightly lower, it has about the same effect on blood glucose levels. It raises them, and quickly.

Agave Syrup

You probably have some honey in your kitchen, but you may not even know what agave syrup is. It’s extracted from the agave plant, which is better known for tequila than the sugar substitute derived from it.

Agave syrup has a similar consistency to honey, with the same number of calories and slightly lower carb content (which is still higher than sugar’s). The primary argument for this syrup is that it’s more than three-quarters fructose, giving it a much lower glycemic index and making it a better choice than sugar or honey for diabetics. On the other hand, the liver turns high amounts of fructose into body fat, and high levels of fructose consumption have been linked to heart disease.

Next.

Maple Syrup

Here’s another natural caloric sweetener you probably have in the kitchen.

The extremely sweet, gooey stuff is yummy with pancakes or waffles, and it can be used effectively to sweeten baked goods and even beverages. It contains more antioxidants than honey, along with good amounts of nutrients like potassium, calcium and manganese. This gift from the maple tree has been shown to lower blood glucose levels (it has a lower glycemic index than sugar) and might even help fight some forms of cancer.

Now the not-so-good news: four grams of carbs and 17 calories per teaspoon. Those are about the same levels as white sugar, making maple syrup no worse – but no better – for your diet. It’s best used in small amounts for its health and wellness benefits, not when trying to limit sugar intake.

Molasses

Molasses is basically just sugar, since it’s the syrup produced when sugar cane is boiled. It has antioxidant properties and good nutrient content (potassium, iron and calcium), but at 20 calories and 5 grams of carbs per teaspoon it’s essentially a dietary one-for-one swap with sugar. 

Blackstrap molasses, which has been boiled two or three times, is much more bitter than “unsulphured” molasses. It contains less sugar and more nutrients, but it’s not going to taste very good if you’re trying to sweeten your coffee or tea with it.

Yacon Syrup

Yes, we know you’ve never heard of this one. It’s extracted from, no surprise, the yacon plant which grows in South America. Its consistency is much like molasses with a similar taste, but it provides more benefits, including gut health and increased feelings of satiety (fullness).

More importantly, it contains a unique type of sugar molecule (fructooligosaccharides) that the body can’t digest. That means it contains only about one-third the calories found in most natural caloric sweeteners, but only slightly fewer carbs. It can also give you diarrhea if you ingest too much.

Coconut Sugar

This sweetener is produced from coconuts instead of sugar cane or sugar beets, but coconut sugar is very similar to regular sugar in many ways. Their calorie and carb content is essentially the same, coconut sugar’s taste and texture are very much like brown sugar’s, and it’s likely to boost your blood sugar because it’s mostly sucrose.

Coconut sugar contains a few more nutrients than table sugar, it makes you feel fuller because it contains higher amounts of inulin (a soluble fiber), and it’s less likely to turn into body fat than high-fructose sweeteners like agave syrup. Even so, it’s certainly not a “diet” choice.

Fruit Juices

The numbers somewhat depends on the type of juice and its form (refined or unrefined), but using fruit juice isn’t the answer, either. The juice may have nutritional benefits, particularly if it’s unrefined, but it will always be high in calories and carbohydrates.

Sugar Alcohols

They’re not sugar. There’s no ethanol in them. But they’re called sugar alcohols because they’re a chemical combination of sugar and alcohol molecules.

These natural sweeteners aren’t normally used in the kitchen or in restaurants. They’re more commonly added to commercial and packaged products because they act as both sweetening and bulking agents. Sugar alcohols are found in everything from chocolate and energy bars, to chewing gum and toothpaste.

You’ll find them most often in products labeled “low-calorie,” “sugar-free,” or “diet,” because they contain fewer carbs and between one-half and one-third the calories of sugar, while still being sweet. Foods sweetened with sugar alcohols are particularly popular among diabetics for several reasons: thy have lower glycemic indexes, they don’t cause blood sugar spikes, and they require almost no insulin to metabolize.

Sugar alcohols are found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, but some that are added to processed foods are man-made by fermenting sugar.

The most common sugar alcohols are erythritol, xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol. All of these sweeteners can cause side effects like gas, bloating and diarrhea in patients with existing gastrointestinal problems or diseases – and everyone who consumes sugar alcohols, with the exceptions of erythritol and xylitol, may experience similar problems.

So sugar alcohols aren’t a good everyday substitute for sugar. What’s left?

Novel Sweeteners

A new class of natural sweeteners (that’s why they’re known as “novel”) has grown rapidly in popularity over the last decade – because they’re the healthiest sugar alternatives.

These all-natural sweeteners contain no calories and no carbs. They’re ideal for diabetics thanks to their glycemic index of zero (meaning they don’t cause blood sugar levels to rise). And they each provide unique health benefits that other sugar alternatives cannot.

Two novel sweeteners are currently “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA: stevia and monk fruit extract. Stevia is sourced from the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana, and monk fruit is sourced from the Asian monk fruit plant, also known as luo han guo. (Tagatose, made from the lactose in dairy products, is also considered a GRAS novel sweetener. But it’s not zero-carb, only low-carb, and very little research has been done on it yet.)

Stevia was the first in this class to receive government approval, with an asterisk. It can only be sold or used in the form of high-quality extracts of the plant’s extremely sweet active ingredients, stevioside and rebaudioside. Crude stevia extract and stevia leaves cannot be used in America for sweetening purposes. Monk fruit extract was classified GRAS a few years later.

Each of these zero-calorie sweeteners provides similar health benefits. They each lower blood sugar levels. Stevia lowers A1C levels and monk fruit stimulates insulin production. They are each believed to lower blood pressure, and each has noteworthy antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

In almost every respect, calorie-free novel sweeteners are better sugar alternatives than the other natural sweeteners available on the market.

But we did say almost every respect. There are two issues to be aware of.

First, the aftertaste. Both stevia and monk fruit extract have a slight but noticeable aftertaste; stevia’s is a little stronger than monk fruit’s. Erythritol is often added to stevia products to cover up that taste.

That brings us to the second issue: other products are sometimes added to these novel sweeteners.

Why would manufacturers add anything to them? Convenience. People are used to adding a teaspoon or restaurant packet of sugar to their coffee or tea. Stevia and monk fruit are several hundred times sweeter than sugar, though, so only a little is needed to do the same job. That’s why many producers “bulk up” the novel sweeteners; that way, people are more comfortable using them – and the bulked-up product can fill a restaurant sweetener packet. 

Erythritol is often added to stevia or monk fruit, but other times it’s the food additive maltodextrin (which has a high glycemic index), molasses or even sugar. Those additives eliminate the health benefits of the novel sweeteners, while adding lots of calories and carbs.

There’s one way to dodge the problem: only use pure stevia or monk fruit extract. That means avoiding packaged sweeteners like Truvia and Stevia in the Raw (stevia “products”), or Lankato and Monk Fruit in the Raw (monk fruit “products”).

Pure extracts are more difficult to find, and they aren’t available in packets, just in bulk containers. But they’re the natural sweeteners that will really deliver all the benefits you expect.

Written by Liz Moore

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