top of page

5 Misconceptions About "Natural" Sweeteners You Wish You Knew Before

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

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. In this post, I clarify five misconceptions about natural sweeteners and list some facts to be aware of when you see a "natural," "all natural," or "100% natural" claim on labels of sugars, syrups, and sweeteners.

Natural versus 100% Natural Sweetener |  Are natural and all natural the same



"Natural" and "organic" sweeteners are the same



"Organic" sweeteners, unlike "natural" sweeteners, are strictly regulated


It is essential 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 versus Organic Sweetener | Is Organic Worth it | Are natural and organic the same

Natural by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is the agency responsible for assuring that foods are properly labeled, does not define or regulate the use of the term "natural."

It does have a longstanding informal policy that says ingredients 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 ingredient.

However, the policy is not clear, misleading, and causes confusion. In the FDA's view, natural sweeteners may be refined, highly processed, and even synthetic copies of sweet components of plants.

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 set the rules, which are complicated, and take hundreds of pages in the Federal Register. Sweeteners labeled with the organic claim must comply with the USDA's organic standards and with the FDA's regulations for labeling.

What are the differences between Natural and Organic Sweeteners | Natural versus Organic Sugar | Natural versus Organic Syrup

Facts about organic sweeteners:

  • Organic farming practices include crop rotation. Genetically modified (GM) seeds, synthetic pesticides, and fertilizers are not allowed. Organic does not automatically mean "pesticide-free" or "chemical-free." A variety of sprays and powders are permitted. Still, such substances must not contribute to the contamination of crops, soil, or water. To draw a comparison: organic farmers have restricted access to 27 synthetic pest control products, while over 900 are registered for use in conventional farming.

  • A common misconception is that organic sweeteners are unrefined and minimally processed. It's important to know that the claim "organic" relates not only to the way a crop is grown but also to how it is processed, handled, and packaged. Like growing organic crops, organic processing is regulated by the NOP, and manufacturers of organic sweeteners must comply with it.

  • Another common misconception is that organic sweeteners are safer, healthier, or nutritionally superior to their conventional (non-organic) counterparts. For example, organic turbinado sugar doesn't provide more nutritional value than regular turbinado. Organic stevia leaf extract is not healthier than conventional stevia extracts. Both organic and non-organic options are safe for us. Organic sweeteners are not better for us, but they are definitely better for the environment.

What makes a sweetener organic | what makes maple syrup organic | what makes honey organic | what makes a product organic

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 most of us consumers, the term "natural" on labels of sweeteners implies that the sweetener is not synthetic. However, as I discussed in a previous post, a variety of natural sweeteners are produced synthetically by fermentation or enzymes. I list below what you need to know about synthetic sweeteners that may be promoted as natural.

FAQ about Synthetic Sweeteners Promoted as "Natural":

  • How are synthetic sweeteners made? Plants or parts of a plant are used as raw material, but a synthetic sweetener is not directly isolated (extracted) from the plants that contain them. For example, fructose, xylitol, and erythritol are found in nature but in minuscule amounts. So, large-scale extraction directly from nature is not cost-effective. That's why synthetic copies of their "natural counterparts" [fructose, xylitol, erythritol that are intrinsic in the plant] are produced. They're made via fermentation and enzymes. Learn more about synthetic sweeteners here.

  • Is a synthetic sweetener different than a naturally occurring sweetener (intrinsic and intact in the plant)? No, a synthetic sweetener is an identical copy of sweet-tasting components of plants. Their chemical structure is exactly the same. It will taste the same, smell the same, and be metabolized via the same pathway in the body. For example, pure erythritol obtained from living things is absolutely identical in every way to pure erythritol synthesized in a laboratory.

  • Are synthetic sweeteners the same as artificial ones? No. According to the FDA, natural ingredients are "found in nature." Because synthetic sweeteners are identical copies of sweet-tasting components of plants, they may be promoted as "natural." On the other hand, the FDA states that artificial ingredients are not found in nature and so are "artificially produced." The takeaway: in the FDA's view, both synthetic and artificial sweeteners are "manufactured artificially," but one is found in nature, and the other is not.

Synthetic Artificial Sweetener | Synthetic artificial difference

Synthetic Sweeteners Promoted As "Natural"

  • Sweeteners derived from corn are synthetic: 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.

  • Sugar alcohols we buy in stores such as erythritol and xylitol are synthetic: Xylitol is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, but the store-bought is an identical copy, which is produced through fermentation of wood pulp or other waste cellulose. 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. Visit my xylitol page and erythritol page to see what is out in stores.

  • The best-tasting stevia leaf extracts (aka steviol glycosides) are synthetic: Most stevia sweeteners we buy in stores are made with an extract called rebaudioside A (or reb A). However, two extracts—namely reb D and reb M—have a much better taste than reb A. The problem is that reb D and M are found in minuscule amounts in the stevia leaf, and their extraction from the leaf is not cost-effective. Therefore, they are being made synthetically. Check out some synthetic stevia here. Read about how one synthetic stevia, aka "stevia without farm," is made here. To see detailed production methods, refer to the following links: reb M or reb D.

  • Monk fruit sweeteners are extracted from the fruit of the Siraitia grosvenorii plant, but some companies are trying to make a synthetic version produced by fermentation. Manufacturers claim that 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.

Synthetic Artificial Sweetener | Synthetic artificial difference



Natural sweeteners are healthier than those processed and refined



Natural sweeteners are not healthier or more nutritive than refined options


A common misconception is that natural sweeteners are minimally-processed and nutritionally superior to refined or processed sweeteners. As discussed in a previous post, all natural sweeteners we find in stores, except raw honeycomb, are processed and refined.

Research does support the argument that minimally-processed foods are healthier than refined or processed foods. For example, the nutritional value of whole-grain foods is superior to refined-grain foods.

However, that isn't the case with sweeteners. A minimally-processed sweetener, such as honey, isn't healthier than a highly refined and processed sweetener, such as table sugar.

Surprised? Here's why.

Let's take some natural caloric sweeteners, for example, and compare the composition of minimally processed with highly processed sweeteners as I did here, here, and below. I'll show you that, chemically speaking, they are not much different from one another. They have A LOT in common but do differ in how they affect the taste and the texture of foods.

I list below some facts about caloric sweeteners to be able to draw a comparison.

Facts About the Healthfulness of "Natural" Caloric Sweeteners:

  • All caloric sweeteners are natural as they are extracted from plants — sources include tree saps, flower nectar (extracted by bees in the case of honey), fruits, milk, and cereals or starches.

  • Caloric sweeteners have 2 major portions: sugar and water. I made a chart below with the approximate values of sugar and water in common sweeteners. It shows that honey is about 80 percent sugar, maple syrup has about 66 percent, and table sugar is 99.9 percent. The remainder is mostly water.

  • The sugar portion: Their main components include 3 sugars: glucose, fructose, and/or sucrose. These same sugars will be present no matter where the sweetener comes from, the method of production, and how highly refined and processed it might be. Most solid sweeteners have over 90 percent sugars and most liquid sweeteners have over 50 percent sugars.

  • The water portion: Their moisture content varies from 0.03 percent — such as in table sugar — up to 34 percent in maple syrup. Both images below compare the composition of common caloric sweeteners. They show amounts of sugars, water, and minerals. The first chart shows the breakdown of type of sugars. The second image is a simplified version, in which all sugars are combined.

natural sweetener composition

How do natural sweeteners composition compares

  • Caloric Sweeteners are a good source of energy but not a significant source of nutrients, other than simple carbohydrates. They provide the same number of calories (4 kcal/g on a dry weight basis*), no matter where they come from and their method of production.

How many calories in sweeteners | sweetener calories comparison | Calories in common sweeteners

  • All caloric sweeteners are digested into glucose and/or fructose, no matter where they come from and their method of production. Our bodies can hardly tell the difference between them. When we eat them, we are having a blend of sugars—usually sucrose, glucose, and fructose—and water. Because enzymes in the digestive tract quickly convert sucrose into glucose and fructose, when it comes to digestion and metabolism, our body will recognize those sweeteners like glucose and/or fructose.

What happens when we eat caloric sweeteners? How does the body digest natural sweeteners?

  • Limit the intake of minimally processed sugars the same way you'd limit highly processed sugars. Minimally processed sweeteners, such as honey, may have slightly more nutrients than refined sweeteners. They may contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but they are not a significant source of any of those nutrients. If you see claims such as the sweetener is a "good source" or "high" in antioxidants, vitamins, or minerals, 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 micronutrient requirements and health benefits from that sweetener, you will need to eat a truly unhealthful amount (100g or 5 Tbsp). The calories and sugar content in that sweetener outweigh the advantages of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.



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. Most of us 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 approved sweeteners sold in stores, regardless of whether it is natural, refined, synthetic, or artificial, are safe for the ways in which they are proposed to be used.

How safe are natural sweeteners | Who assures the safety of low-calorie sweeteners

What is a safe sweetener

  • Learn more on how the safety of sweeteners and other food ingredients are determined here.

Facts about the Safety of "Natural" Sweeteners:

  • The safety evaluation is based on the sweetener's properties: 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 the same as the one synthetically obtained from cornstarch.

  • A common saying "the dose makes the poison" is true for sweeteners, regardless of whether the sweetener is 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 do 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).

  • Most of the zero-calorie sweeteners sold in stores that carry the "natural" claim contain stevia leaf or monk fruit extracts. Both are composed of a variety of chemicals. Stevia leaf's sweet molecules are steviol glycosides (see image below). Rebaudioside A (reb A, rebiana) is the extract most often used in almost 100 tabletop sweeteners. Monk fruit extracts contain triterpene glycosides. The most abundant is mogroside V, which represents around 1 percent of the fruit.

Natural sweetener does not mean chemical-free | Chemical free sweetener

What is stevia chemical formula | what is stevia chemical name | what is stevia chemicals | stevia chemical components | stevia chemical makeup | Stevia chemical breakdown

Main Takeaways

The Food and Drug Administration does not define or regulate the use of the term "natural" on labels. When it comes to sweeteners, they might be highly processed, extremely refined, and even a synthetic copy of sweet components of plants. The "natural" claim is not a synonym for "better-for-you," safer, or free of chemicals.

For more on natural sweeteners, read Natural Sweeteners: Not What You Might Think



WhatSugar Blog is reader-supported. When you buy through Amazon links on this website, this blog may earn an affiliate commission, at no cost to you --- A one-woman business relying on Amazon affiliate commission to avoid ads.

Share your thoughts!

What is your expectation when you see a "natural" claim on labels of sugars, syrups, and 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?

2,438 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page