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 we need to be aware of when we 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 only has 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.
This policy is not clear, might be misleading and cause confusion. In the FDA's view, natural sweeteners might 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. In fact, 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. Organic turbinado sugar does not 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.
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 plant it is manufactured. Fermentation or enzymes chemically change or break down components of the raw material to produce the sweetener. Sweeteners, such as glucose, fructose, xylitol, and erythritol, are found in nature but it is not cost-effective to extract them in a large scale. Synthetic copies of their natural counterparts are produced with more purity and consistency. Learn more about synthetic sweeteners here.
How to find out if a "natural" sweetener is in fact, synthetic? Search the sweetener's website for the method of production and look for terms such as biologically produced, enzymatically enhanced, and sweetener produced by fermentation, enzymatic treatment, enzymes, or bio-conversion.
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, with pure erythritol synthesized in a laboratory.
Are synthetic sweeteners the same as artificial? No. According to the FDA's website, 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 "synthetically produced". The takeaway: in FDA's view, both synthetic and artificial sweeteners are "manufactured artificially," but one is found in nature, and the other is not.
Synthetic Sweeteners Promoted As "Natural"
Examples of synthetic sweeteners: corn syrup, organic corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, brown rice syrup, organic brown rice syrup, organic tapioca syrup, steviol glycosides, stevia enzymatically enhanced, xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, allulose.
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.
Some 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). Recently, two extracts—namely reb D and reb M—are being promoted as being much "better-tasting" and "more sugar-like" 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: synthetic reb D and synthetic reb M. 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 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 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, e.g., the nutritional value of whole-grain foods is superior to refined-grain foods. That is not the case with sweeteners, e.g., a minimally-processed sweetener such as honey is not healthier than a highly refined and processed sweetener such as table sugar. Surprised? Keep reading.
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. We can get to the conclusion that chemically speaking, they are not much different. They 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.
They contain two major portions: sugar and water. Caloric sweeteners are a solution of one or more sugars in concentrated form (refer to charts below with approximate values of sugar and water). Honey is about 80 percent sugar, maple syrup has about 66 percent, and table sugar 99.9 percent. The remainder is mostly water.
Most caloric sweeteners contain the following 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 over 50 percent sugars.
They contain different amounts of water: Their moisture content varies from 0.03 percent — such as in table sugar — up to about 30 percent — in maple syrup. Both images below compare the composition of common caloric sweeteners. They show amounts of sugars, water, and minerals. The second image is just a simplified version.
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 dry weight basis*), no matter where they come from and their method of production.
All caloric sweeteners are digested into glucose and/or fructose, no matter where they come from and their method of production. Our body 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.
Intake of minimally-processed sugars should be limited the same way you would limit your intake of processed sugars. Minimally-processed sweeteners, such as honey, may have slightly more nutrients than refined sweeteners. They may contain vitamins, minerals, 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 micronutrients 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 outweighs 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.
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 an intensely sweet component of the licorice root. It is not safe as a sweetener because it might 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 costly 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. Still, they had to go through a long strict evaluation.
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 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.
The Food and Drug Administration does not define or regulate the use of the term "natural" on labels. When it comes to sweeteners, it might be highly processed, extremely refined, and even a synthetic copy of sweet components of plants. The "natural" claim is not a synonym of "better-for-you," safer, or free of chemicals.
For more on natural sweeteners, read Natural Sweeteners: Not What You Might Think
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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?
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