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" 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 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 which says that 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 cause 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.
Facts about organic sweeteners:
Organic sweeteners must be sourced from a plant grown according to USDA's organic standards (National Organic Program or NOP). Farmers must use 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.
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 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 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.
To be claimed as organic and display the USDA's organic seal on the package label, the sweetener must be certified by a NOP-authorized agent or the USDA. The certifying agency's name must be stated on the product's label (see label below). As of 2020, there are no organic standards specific to honey in the U.S., but only recommendations from 2010.
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" in 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.