The front label of sugars, syrups and tabletop sweeteners often contain claims such as ‘natural’, ‘all natural’, or ‘100% natural’. Sweetener manufacturers and distributors are allowed to use the term 'natural', but it is not defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for assuring that foods are properly labeled.
Wondering why the term is not regulated? A lack of a general agreement as the consumer expectation, about what a natural sweetener should be, does not correspond with the sweetener industry nor the FDA's view.
In 2016, a survey by Consumer Reports magazine showed that at least 60 percent of consumers believed 'natural' on food labels meant they contained no artificial ingredients and no genetically modified materials.
The widespread confusion over the meaning of a 'natural' claim on labels of sugars, syrups, and tabletop sweeteners made it evident that a blog post to tackle the problem was necessary. Keep reading to find out if a sweetener claimed as 'natural' meets your expectations.
WHAT DOES 'NATURAL' MEAN TO THE FDA?
The FDA has not established a definition for the use of the term 'natural' on food labels but does have a longstanding informal policy. The policy is not clear and can have different meanings in different contexts. It is supposed to be generally applied across all food ingredients, however it is clear that different ingredients require different approaches as you can see in thousands of comments that the FDA received when asked for the public feedback.
FDA’s policy for 'natural' claims is based primarily upon the source material, which must be found in nature
According to the FDA, all sweeteners ‘derived from a natural source’ are natural, no matter how highly refined and processed they might be. The sweetener must have ‘nothing artificial or synthetic included in, or added to, it that would not normally be expected to be in’ it. For the FDA, artificial sweeteners are those not found in nature and are synthetically produced.
In FDA's view, processing and refining does not affect the natural character of the sweetener
Processing and manufacturing methods are not addressed in FDA’s policy. Highly processed or refined sweeteners may be labeled as natural. Stevia leaf extracts, monk fruit extracts, table sugar and other refined sugars are good examples of natural sweeteners that go through a great deal of processing and refining before they become available to you.
Natural sweeteners may be manufactured artificially by fermentation or enzymes
As stated in FDA's website, ingredients ‘found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts’. Many natural sweeteners on store shelves are not directly isolated and extracted from a plant. These ‘natural sweetener-like’ ingredients are synthetic copies of sweet components of plants and are often referred to as naturally-occurring sweeteners. They are synthesized by fermentation or enzymes, in a process that chemically change a material isolated from a plant. The store-bought xylitol, erythritol, and fructose are synthetic copies of their natural counterparts (intrinsic and intact in plants).
The FDA states that all sweeteners are subject to the same strict safety standards regardless of whether they are natural or artificial.
NATURAL SWEETENERS MAY BE
MINIMALLY-PROCESSED, REFINED OR SYNTHETIC
The goal here is to make you aware that sweeteners carrying the 'natural' claim may be highly refined and processed, or even synthetically produced by enzymes or fermentation. As said before, in FDA's view, processing, refining, and enzymology do not affect the natural character of a sweetener but, to the general public, it often does. There is an increased awareness of where sweeteners come from.
Therefore, I turn now the focus to what you need to know about the way sweeteners are produced and processed. I believe that if you understand how sweeteners are transformed from their original source materials, you can find out if a sweetener claimed as 'natural' meets your expectations.
NOTE: What does a 'processed' and 'refined' sweetener mean?
The terms ‘processed’ and 'refined' carry a negative connotation, but all sweeteners (except raw honey comb) are processed and refined in one way or another. Processing and refining involve a spectrum of changes a source material undergoes.
The term 'processed' means the sweetener manufacturer used methods or techniques to alter a source material. It usually involves technology and machinery but can be done with simple equipment and basic procedures in a domestic kitchen.
The term 'refined' means the sweetener is 'purified', i.e, it is processed for removal of impurities. During the refining process, the sweetener is physically separated from impurities and is not chemically changed.
A sweetener is processed and refined for safety, taste, aroma, convenience, availability and/or consistency. Removal of beneficial components of the source and concentration (evaporation of water) often occur.
All natural sweeteners are processed and refined to some degree by a variety of different physical, chemical, and biological actions, such as boiling, blending, adjusting of pH, filtering, fermenting, use of enzymes, and chemicals.
Based on the types and intensity of manufacturing processing and interventions used for industrial production, I am dividing natural sweeteners into four different groups: minimally-processed, refined, highly-refined, and synthetic.
Be aware that the processing a sweetener is subject to may vary from one manufacturer to another. Agave nectar may be either a refined sweetener or a synthetic sweetener. Stevia may be highly-refined or synthetic. Inulin is synthetic when made from table sugar but it is a refined sweetener when extracted from chicory roots. Cane sugar, such as Sucanat, is a refined sweetener but may be, as in the case of turbinado sugar, a highly-refined sweetener.
This classification does not take into account the healthfulness of sweeteners and has no intention to separate sweeteners into 'bad-for-you' and 'good-for-you' boxes. As opposed to most foods (such as grains), the nutritional profile of sweeteners is not correlated with the processing they are subject to by the manufacturer. For instance, nutritionally speaking, a minimally-processed sweetener such as raw honey is not much different than refined cane sugar.
1) MINIMALLY-PROCESSED SWEETENER
A sweetener obtained through processes that involve minimal removal of the original components of the source, is referred here as minimally-processed (aka minimally-refined). Be aware that minimally-processed sweeteners do not necessarily have more nutritive value, are healthier, or safer than a refined or synthetic sweetener. They may contain slightly more nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and oligosaccharides, however, for the most part, they are not a significant source of nutrients, other than calories from sugars.
Source: The raw material of the sweetener is a plant, parts of plants, or, in the case of honey (flower nectar extracted and processed by bees), beehives
Method of Production: Produced by processes that minimally affect the natural character of the source; minimal physical processing and minimal refining are involved. Slight evaporation of water or concentration may be involved.
Final Product: The sweetener produced is found in the source from which it is obtained.
Examples: Sweeteners derived from flower nectar & fruit; honey, date sugar (finely chopped dehydrated dates; process varies with manufacturer so may be refined), date syrup, and other fruit-based syrups (process varies with manufacturer so may be refined)
2) REFINED SWEETENER
A sweetener obtained through processes that involve removal of most of the components of the source, is referred to as refined. A great deal of processing is typically involved. The refined (purified) sweetener is found in the source plant from which it is derived, i.e., no chemical change of the sweetener occurs during processing. The term 'refined' has a bad connotation but means 'purified' or processed to remove impurities, improve the color, odor, and flavor, and make it easier to transport or store.
As said before, refined sweeteners do not necessarily have less nutritive value or health effects than minimally-processed sweeteners. For the most part, refined sweeteners are not a significant source of nutrients, other than calories from sugars. One exception is fiber-based sweeteners such as yacon syrup (fructoligosaccharides) and inulin. Read about non-digestible sweeteners here.
Source: The raw material is a plant, or parts of plants, which has relatively high concentration of the sweetener (sweetener is a component of the source).
Method of Production: Put simply, after a diluted solution of the sweetener is extracted from a plant (tree saps, fruits, or grasses), its water is boiled off, and impurities are removed. The refining methods and techniques vary with the producer, but evaporation or concentration is always involved.
Final Product: The sweetener produced is found in the source from which it is obtained.
Whole cane sugar
Light muscovado sugar
Dark muscovado sugar
Traditional cane syrup
Traditional (open kettle or home style) molasses
Coconut (palm) sugar
Maple sugar (flakes, dehydrated)
Date syrup & other fruit-based syrups (proceess varies with the manufacturer; may be minimally-processed sweeteners)
Yacon syrup or powder (fructooligosacchrides-based sweetener; may be synthetic)
Inulin (processes varies with manufacturer; may be a highly-refined sweetener or even synthetic when involving enzymes)
3) HIGHLY-REFINED SWEETENER
Sweeteners obtained through processes that remove a great deal of the original components of the source are called highly-refined. As said before, these refined sweeteners are found in the source from which they are derived; i.e, no chemical change of the sweetener occurs during processing.
Source: Is a plant, parts of a plant, or animals (in the case of lactose) that contain a relatively high concentration of the sweetener (sweetener is a component of the source)
Method of Production: The sweetener is physically isolated from the plant or milk (in the case of lactose), concentrated (boiled) and have impurities separated from it. Several processing steps are usually used to extract and purify. Chemicals may be used to help the refining process (processing aids).
Final Product: The sweetener produced is found in the source from which it is obtained.
Refined Sugars (from Cane or Beet)
Fine granulated sugar
Extra fine granulated sugar
Superfine (quick dissolve) sugar
Ultrafine (baker’s special, bakers, caster) sugar
Powdered (confectioners) + 3% starch
Fondant (icing, frosting) + 3% starch
Light (golden) brown sugar
Dark brown sugar
Pourable brown sugar (Brownulated)
White cubes, tablets, gourmet sugar
Rock sugar (sugar swizzle sticks, sugar crystals)
Brown rock sugar (swizzle sticks, sugar crystals)
Invert syrup (medium invert, golden syrup)
Full invert syrup
Light (mild, Barbados) molasses
Dark (full, medium) molasses
Raw Sugars (from Cane)
* Slightly less refined, but much less processed, than Refined Sugars
Raw cane sugar
Evaporated cane juice
Dried cane syrup
Dehydrated cane juice
Natural cane sugar
Organic powdered/confectioners (3% starch)
Organic light brown sugar
Organic dark brown sugar
Demerara or raw sugar cubes
Raw cane syrup (organic cane or invert syrup)
Organic blackstrap molasses
Stevia leaf extracts
Monk fruit extracts
Lactose (raw material is whey, or milk serum, which is the liquid part of the milk left after making cheese)
4) SYNTHETIC SWEETENER
A sweetener that does not occur in the plant from which it is manufactured, or is not directly isolated or extracted from a plant, is a synthetic sweetener. It is obtained through processes that chemically change or break down components of the raw material, involving the use of enzymes, fermentation, and/or acids.
Sweeteners, such as glucose, fructose, xylitol, and erythritol, are found in nature. However, synthetic copies of their natural counterparts are produced much more cost-effectively, with more purity and consistency. ‘Natural sweetener-like’ ingredients (synthetic copies of a natural sweetener) are chemically identical to their naturally-occurring counterpart (intrinsic and intact in plants). Synthetic sweeteners are often referred to as naturally-occurring sweeteners.
Source: Is a plant or parts of a plant, which does not contain the sweetener. Sweetener is not a component of the plant.
Method of Production: Use processes that chemically change or break down components of the raw material. Involve the use of enzymes from microorganisms such as yeasts, fungi, or bacteria to perform a selective chemical reaction, and/or fermentation. Several processing steps are usually used to synthesize and refine (purify) the sweetener.
Final Product: The sweetener produced is not found in the source from which it is manufactured or is not directed extracted/isolated from the source material.
Manufactured by using enzymes; cornstarch is first converted to liquefied starch and subsequently is broken down into glucose (enzymatic hydrolysis process); glucose is then converted to fructose (enzymatic isomerization process)
Corn syrups (in pancake/table syrups)
High fructose corn syrups (in pancake/table syrups)
Barley malt syrup (typically produced by using only enzymes created in the sprouting of barley)
Brown rice syrup (produced by mixing cooked rice starch with enzymes which break down the starches)
Cassava or tapioca syrup (made from tapioca - also called manioc or cassava - starch which is broken down by enzymes)
Cane- or Beet-derived Sweeteners
Invert syrup (medium invert, golden syrup, full invert)
Other Plant-derived Sweeteners
Stevia (steviol glycosides) enzymatically modified or reduced from sugars (Reb D or Reb M)
Agave Syrup (agave inulin is broken down to fructose by enzymes)
Xylitol (obtained by fermentation of wood pulp or other waste cellulose)
Erythritol (obtained by fermenting glucose from cornstarch or by an electrochemical process from refined sugar)
Inulin (extracted from the roots of Jerusalem artichoke and chicory, or from agave plant involving enzymes)
NOTE: About Enzymes & Fermentation
Manufacturers of natural sweeteners are increasingly using terms such as fermentation and enzymes, which appeal to most of us. We perceive the use of enzymes and fermentation as natural and associate them with the production of bread, cheese, wine, and beer. We know foods can easily be made at home by relying in the ability of carbohydrates to be fermented.
Fermentation is viewed as a ‘spontaneous’ and traditional process performed by the addition of innocuous microorganisms (yeasts, bacteria, or fungi). It is a technique well known for more than 3000 years to produce enzymes. During fermentation, enzymes produced by microorganisms break down complex molecules into simpler substances, changing the chemical composition of the source material.
Enzymes are protein molecules that allow chemical reactions to take place without being consumed themselves (biological catalysts). They are the naturally occurring proteins that allow all biochemical processes of life to occur and are found in all raw materials used to make our food. They are in the ripening of fruits and breaking down of foods during digestion and metabolism.
To produce sweeteners, food processing enzymes (aka industrial enzymes or enzyme preparations) are manufactured via sophisticated fermentation processes carried out in large (150.000 L) contained vats. Temperature, nutrients, air supply, and strict rules of hygiene are controlled. Once fermentation is completed, the microorganisms are destroyed, and the enzymes are isolated for commercial use. Techniques of genetic engineering may be used. Read about it here and here.
Enzymes used for sweetener production are processing aids and are not present in the final product, which means they are generally used during processing and then inactivated or removed from the sweetener. Find here the enzymes approved by the FDA as food additives and those that have a 'generally recognized as safe' (GRAS) status affirmed by the FDA. Those with self-affirmed GRAS status are not listed.
NATURAL vs ARTIFICIAL
According to the FDA, artificial sweeteners are not found in nature and so, are synthetically produced. Note that the synthetic sweeteners listed above are not artificial, because they are found in nature, i.e., are identical copies of naturally occurring (intrinsic; intact in the plant) sweet components of plants.
It is also important to emphasize that in FDA's view, the synthetic sweeteners listed above, which are produced synthetically by fermentation or enzymes, are considered natural. As discussed at the beginning of this blog post, according to a statement in FDA's website, ingredients ‘found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts’
Find below the most commonly used artificial sweeteners. Like most refined and synthetic sweeteners, artificial sweeteners are often obtained using sophisticated technology. Explore almost a hundred zero calories tabletop sweeteners containing artificial sweeteners here.
Source: May or may not be found in nature.
Method of Production: Varies with the sweetener; man-made in a laboratory.
Final Product: The sweetener produced is not found in nature.
Aspartame (does not exist in nature but it is broken down in the body into compounds found in nature >> two amino acids & methanol)
Sucralose (produced from a raw material found in nature >> table sugar aka sucrose)
CONFUSED ABOUT WHAT 'NATURAL' MEANS?
YOU'RE NOT ALONE!
Consumers and food manufacturers do not agree with what a natural sweetener means and, as a result, some class-action petitions have been filed. None went to trial, being settled before going to court. Find below a timeline of events that resulted from the lack of a clear definition of 'natural' sweeteners:
From 2015 to 2016, the FDA asked for public comments on questions such as whether it is appropriate to define the term 'natural' and if so, how the agency should define 'natural'. More than 7,600 comments were collected. Early in 2018, the commissioner of the FDA, which asked for the public feedback, said the FDA would have 'more to say on the issue soon' but no reference to 'natural' claim was made by the agency in their '2018 strategic roadmap'.
In 2014, a lawsuit against McNeil Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, was filed over '100% natural' claims on Nectresse monk fruit sweeteners. One of the complaints was that monk fruit extract is highly processed and refined. Besides that, the main ingredient, erythritol, is naturally present in some fruits and vegetables but, on an industrial level, is synthetically produced by converting cornstarch to glucose via enzymatic hydrolysis, fermenting the glucose using yeast, followed by a refining process of the erythritol.
In 2014, Merisant and Whole Earth Sweeteners were sued for marketing their stevia-based sweetener, Pure Via, as natural. The companies agreed to pay $1.65m to settle lawsuits.
In 2013, Cargill, Inc. was sued for marketing their stevia-based sweetener Truvía as natural. The complaint was that stevia extract Reb-A is highly processed and refined and also the main ingredient (99%), erythritol, is a synthetic sweetener. In 2014, Cargill agreed to pay $6.1m, considered the highest settlement paid for a 'natural' claim lawsuit.
In 2008, Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which is the trade association representing the corn refining industry, requested to consider high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) 'natural'. Initially, in April 2008, the FDA said in a letter: 'HFCS is not natural'. But, in July of the same year, the FDA found that HFCS can be labeled 'natural', and here is the letter from the FDA.
In 2006, The Sugar Association, which is the trade association representing the cane and beet sugar industry, petitioned the FDA to accept USDA's definition of 'natural', claiming HFCS as natural was misleading.
In 2005, The Sugar Association filed a lawsuit against McNeil Nutritionals, the maker of the artificial sweetener Splenda, for using the slogan 'made from sugar so it tastes like sugar.' suggesting Splenda is 'natural' rather than artificial. The case was settled in 2008 but the agreement was confidential.
What is your view on what a natural sweetener is?
Learn more by reading my next blog post '5 Misconceptions about Natural Sweeteners'.
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