The general public perception is that a natural sweetener is minimally-processed, safer, healthier, "better for you", and nutritionally superior. For most of us, it implies that the sweetener is not synthetic. However, as I discussed in a previous post, Natural Sweeteners: Not What You Might Think, the term "natural" is used to refer to any sweetener derived from a natural source (such as plants or milk), no matter how highly refined and processed it might be. I explained that a natural sweetener may be manufactured artificially by fermentation or enzymes.
In this post, you will find five misconceptions about natural sweeteners and facts you need to be aware of when you see a ‘natural’, ‘all natural’, or ‘100% natural’ claim on labels of sugars, syrups, and tabletop sweeteners.
'Natural' sweeteners are the same as 'organic' sweeteners
'Organic' sweeteners, unlike 'natural' sweeteners, are strictly regulated
It is important to know that the use of the term ‘organic’ in sweeteners labels follows a set of strict rules versus the use of the 'natural’ claim is informal and not regulated.
Natural by FDA
The FDA, which is the agency responsible for assuring that foods are properly labeled, does not define or regulate the use of the term 'natural'. As I discussed in a previous post, the FDA has a longstanding informal policy, that is not clear, may be misleading and cause consumer confusion.
In FDA's view, sweeteners derived from a natural source may carry the claim 'natural' if 'nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to, it that would not normally be expected to be in’ that sweetener.
Organic By USDA
In contrast, the use of the term “organic” is strictly regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), which was established and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It took twelve years for the USDA to figure out how to define organics and to set the rules, which are complicated, and take up hundreds of pages in the Federal Register. Sweeteners labeled with the organic claim must comply not only with the USDA's organic standards, but also with the FDA's regulations for labeling.
Facts about organic sweeteners:
Organic sweeteners must be sourced from a plant grown according to USDA's organic standards (National Organic Program or NOP), using practices that maintain or enhance the soil and water quality, while conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Growers are inspected by the USDA or a certifying agency following a long list of rules.
No genetically modified seeds, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and sewage sludge are allowed. Organic does not automatically mean ‘pesticide-free’ or ‘chemical-free’. A variety of sprays and powders are allowed, but such substances must not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water.
Organic sweeteners are not necessarily unrefined and unprocessed. The claim ‘organic’ in fact relates not only to the way a crop is grown, but also how it is processed, handled, and packaged. Just like growing organic crops, organic processing is regulated by the NOP and manufacturers of organic sweeteners must comply with it.
To be claimed as organic and display USDA's organic seal, the sweetener must be certified by a NOP-authorized agent. The name of the certifying agency must be stated on the product's label (see label below). Be aware that, as of 2018, there are no organic standards specific to honey in the U.S., only recommendations from 2010.
Facts about organic sweeteners (continued):
Organic sweeteners are not healthier or nutritionally superior to their 'natural' (conventional or non-organic) counterparts. They are as safe for you. Organic sweeteners are not better for you but they are definitely better for the environment.
Please refer to a previous post to learn about organic sugar.
Natural sweeteners may not be synthetically produced
Natural Sweeteners may be synthetic copies of their natural counterparts
In the mind of many shoppers, the term 'natural' in labels of sweeteners implies that the sweetener is not synthetic. But a variety of 'natural' sweeteners are produced synthetically by fermentation or enzymes (learn more here).
Sweeteners, such as glucose, fructose, xylitol, and erythritol, are found in nature but, to be produced cost-effectively in large scale and with more purity and consistency, synthetic copies of their natural counterparts are produced.
Plants or parts of a plant are used as raw material but these sweeteners are not directly isolated or extracted from a plant. Fermentation or enzymes chemically change or break down components of the raw material to produce the sweetener.
The chemical structure of the synthetic sweetener is exactly the same as its naturally occurring (intrinsic and intact in the plant) counterpart. It will taste the same, smell the same, and it will be metabolized via the same pathway in the body.
Why are manufacturers of natural sweeteners increasingly using fermentation & enzymology?
Many sweet tasting molecules are found naturally in plants but only in tiny amounts, making extraction and production in large scale not cost-effective. Synthetic copies of some of those sweet molecules are being made via fermentation and enzymology.
Manufacturers promote the use of these processes as a more efficient and sustainable way to produce sweeteners. For instance, to grow stevia, it is required intensive use of land and water, and the resulting leaves contain trace amounts of sweet molecules.
The general public sees fermentation and the use of enzymes as being 'natural', associating them with the production of traditional foods and beverages such as bread, cheese, wine, and beer.
Fermentation is perceived as a ‘spontaneous’ process performed by the addition of innocuous microorganisms (yeasts, bacteria, or fungi). Consumers respond positively to a technique that is well known for more than 3000 years.
Synthetic Sweeteners Promoted As 'Natural'
Glucose and most fructose we find in stores are manufactured from corn using enzymes. Cornstarch is broken down into glucose (enzymatic hydrolysis process); glucose is then converted to fructose (enzymatic isomerization process).
High fructose corn syrup and corn syrups, the main ingredients in most pancake syrups, are also manufactured from corn involving the use of enzymes to break down cornstarch and convert glucose to fructose. Nevertheless, they may carry the 'natural' claim.
Xylitol sold in stores is a synthetic sweetener produced through fermentation of wood pulp or other waste cellulose. This synthetic xylitol and the one found naturally in fruits and vegetables are identical with respect to their chemistry and effects on the body
Erythritol exists in tiny amounts in some fruits (watermelon, pear, and grape), in mushrooms, and some fermented foods (soy sauce, cheese, wine and beer), but is synthetically obtained by fermenting glucose from cornstarch or by an electrochemical process from corn sugar.
Stevia sweeteners may be synthetically produced by fermentation or enzymology (bio-conversion), instead of being directly extracted and isolated from the leaf of the plant. In tabletop sweeteners, the most commonly used extract is Rebaudioside A (Reb A) but two extracts, namely Reb D and Reb M, are being promoted as being the 'better-tasting' and 'more sugar-like' stevia. As they are present in minuscule amounts in the stevia leaf, Reb D and Reb M process of extraction and purification is very expensive. Therefore, they have been produced synthetically. Check out some synthetic stevia here: synthetic Reb D and synthetic Reb M. One brand of natural and organic tabletop sweetener promotes their stevia as 'enzymatically enhanced'. Read about synthetic stevia, aka 'stevia without farm', here, here and here. For more, go here or here. To see production methods: Reb M or Reb D.
Monk fruit sweeteners are extracted from the fruit of the Siraitia grosvenorii plant but may be synthetically produced by fermentation. Manufacturers claim that the synthetic monk fruit extracts are far superior and much less expensive than their natural counterparts. Read more about synthetic monk fruit sweeteners here and here.
Natural sweeteners are healthier than those processed and refined
Natural sweeteners are not healthier or more nutritive than refined options
A common consumer misconception is that natural sweeteners are minimally-processed, and so, are nutritionally superior to refined or processed sweeteners. Research does support the argument that minimally-processed foods are healthier than refined or processed foods, e.g., the nutritional value of whole-grain foods is superior to refined-grain foods. This is not the case with sweeteners, e.g., honey is not healthier than table sugar.
Take some natural caloric sweeteners, for example, and compare minimally-processed with highly processed or refined sweeteners as I did here, here, and below. We can get to the conclusion that they are not much different. I list below some facts about caloric sweeteners to be able to draw a comparison.
Facts about caloric sweeteners:
Caloric sweeteners are natural as they are extracted from plants; sources include tree saps, flower nectar (extracted by bees in the case of honey), cereals, and fruits
Are mainly composed of glucose, fructose, and/or sucrose, no matter where they come from and their method of production
Contain 2 major portions: sugar & water; i.e., are a solution of one or more sugars in concentrated form (see chart below approx. values)
Have different water content (0.03 to about 30%); most solid sweeteners have over 90% sugar; most liquid sweeteners over 50% sugar
Honey is about 80% sugar. Maple syrup has about 66% sugar. Table sugar is 99.9% sugar. The remainder is mostly water.
Both images below compare the composition of common caloric sweeteners. They show amount of sugars, water, and minerals. The second image is just a simplified version.
Facts about caloric sweeteners (continued):
They are a good source of energy but not a significant source of nutrients, other than simple carbohydrates
They have the same number of calories (4 kcal/g on dry weight basis*), no matter where they come from and their method of production
All caloric sweeteners are digested into glucose and/or fructose (see chart below), no matter where they come from and their method of production
Intake of minimally-processed sugars should be limited exactly the same way you would limit your intake of processed sugars
Facts about caloric sweeteners (continued):
Minimally-processed sweeteners, such as honey, may have slightly more nutrients than refined sweeteners
Some caloric sweeteners may contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, but they are not a significant source of those nutrients
If you see a 'good source' or 'high' claim, check the sweetener's nutrition facts, paying attention to serving size and volume/weight unit (1tsp, 2Tbsp, 60mL, 100g)
Manufacturers claiming their sweetener is a good source of antioxidants, minerals, or vitamins, often use a serving size of 100g
To get your daily micronutrients requirements & health benefits from natural sweeteners, you would have to eat a truly unhealthful amount (100g or 5 Tbsp)
The calories and sugar content in natural sweeteners outweigh the advantages of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
How come all of those caloric sweeteners have 4 kcal/g in dry basis?
Put simply, caloric sweeteners consist of two major portions — water and sugars. Sweeteners have different water content, such as less than 0.05% in table sugar to about 30% in maple syrup. When we eat caloric sweeteners, we have them with water, but, to help compare their nutritional value, it is easier to use 'dry basis' that assumes no water is present in the sweetener.
Natural sweeteners are safer
Natural sweeteners are not safer than refined, synthetic & artificial options
Another common perception is that a natural sweetener is safer or has fewer implications for human health. Consumers worry about the threat to health posed by artificial and synthetic sweeteners, but not by natural sweeteners.
The U.S. Congress requires that manufacturers and the FDA ensure that ingredients added to food are safe. In FDA's view, the safety evaluation of a natural sweetener, be it minimally-processed, refined or synthetic, requires the same quantity and quality of scientific evidence as artificial sweeteners.
According to the FDA, all tabletop sweeteners available to you, regardless of whether it is natural, refined, synthetic, or artificial, are safe for the ways in which they are proposed to be used.
Who assures that sweeteners are safe?
The FDA is responsible for the approval of sweeteners and to assure they are safe.
Sweeteners fall into one of two FDA designated categories: GRAS and food additive.
The approval process for GRAS (generally recognized as safe) differs from food additives.
Food additives must undergo premarket review and approval by the FDA.
According to the FDA, GRAS sweeteners require the same quantity and quality of scientific evidence as food additives.
What exactly is a 'safe' sweetener?
FDA's definition of 'safe' or 'safety' is a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the sweetener is not harmful under the intended conditions of use
Must be resonably certain of no harm; the FDA considers 'harm' the capacity to injure or otherwise damage the health
Must not cause cancer in animals or humans (aka, Delaney Clause); these clause is not a requirement to GRAS ingredients
Must follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) regulations to ensure the sweetener is sanitary and clean
Learn more on how the safety of sweeteners and other food ingredients are determined here.
Facts about the safety of natural sweeteners:
Natural is not a synonym for safe: Natural is not the same as innocuous and harmless. A variety of naturally occurring sweeteners raised safety concerns. Stevia leaf and crude stevia leaf extracts are not permitted for use as sweeteners due to concerns about control of blood sugar, and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems. Only some highly refined stevia leaf extracts are safe to be used. Another example is glycyrrhizin which is intensely sweet but can cause potassium levels in the body to fall and blood pressure to rise.
Natural is not the same as approved: According to the FDA, 'food ingredients are subject to the same strict safety standards regardless of whether they are naturally or artificially derived'. The safety evaluation of all sweeteners is a long and very expensive process involving up to 103 tests. Natural sweeteners such as monk fruit and stevia-derived sweeteners had a history of safe use (history of consumption by a significant number of consumers) in Asia and South America, but still had to go through a long strict evaluation.
Safety evaluation is based on the properties of the sweetener: Whether the sweetener is natural, synthetic, or artificial is irrelevant. The safety of a sweetener is a function of the molecule’s chemical structure, not its origin and not how that structure is achieved. Synthetic copies of natural sweeteners are chemically identical to their naturally-occurring counterpart, e.g., fructose naturally present in fruits is exactly the same as the one synthetically obtained from cornstarch.
A common saying 'The dose makes the poison' is true for sweeteners, regardless of whether they are natural, synthetic or artificial. It is the amount of the sweetener consumed, not the source or method of production, that is important for safety. Intake of minimally processed sweeteners should be limited the same way you would limit your intake of processed, refined, synthetic or artificial sweeteners. The doses that produce negative effects are high, but not impossible to reach (even vitamins and water may pose a danger).
Natural sweeteners are chemical-free
Natural sweetener does not mean chemical-free
Some natural sweeteners contain nutrients and others not, but all of them are composed of chemicals. All sweeteners, whether hard to pronounce or easy to understand, have one or a mixture of chemical compounds.
Caloric sweeteners are predominantly composed of chemicals called simple carbohydrates, also known as sugars (see image below)
Polyols such as xylitol and erythritol are reduced calorie sweeteners. They consist of carbohydrates partially or not digested by our body
Most of the zero calorie tabletop sweeteners available in stores that carry the 'natural' claim contain stevia leaf or monk fruit extracts, both are composed of a variety of chemicals
Share your Thoughts!
What is your expectation when you see a ‘natural’, ‘all natural’, or ‘100% natural’ claim on labels of sugars, syrups, and tabletop sweeteners?
Healthier? Nutritionally superior? Minimally-processed? Unrefined? Not processed at all?
What is your opinion on natural sweeteners being produced synthetically by fermentation?
What did I miss? What would you add?
#organicsweetener #naturalsweetener #minimallyprocessedsweetener #syntheticsweetener #refinedsugar #stevia #artificialsweetener #sweetenerhealthbenefits #bestsweetener #safesweetener #refinedsweetener #processedsweetener