What exactly is a "natural" sweetener? It's not what you might think.

Updated: Sep 14


We've all seen the front label of sugars, syrups, and sweeteners showing claims such as "natural," "all natural," or "100% natural." Sweetener manufacturers and distributors are allowed to use these claims. Still, they are not defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for assuring that foods are correctly labeled.


So, what's a "natural" sweetener, anyway?


Is it minimally-processed? Unrefined? Is it free of anything artificial, synthetic, and genetically modified (GMO)? Is it a sweetener produced by nature without any human intervention? Can it be synthetically produced by fermentation?


If you too, are confused, this blog post is for you. We all have different ideas about what a natural sweetener means, so read on to find out if products in stores meet your expectations.





WHAT DOES "NATURAL" MEAN TO THE FDA?

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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 foods and ingredients (a legal definition specifically for natural flavors does exist). However, it is clear that different foods require different approaches, as we can see in thousands of comments that the FDA received when asked for public feedback.


A simple reason why there is no such law is the lack of a general agreement as the consumer expectation does not correspond with the food industry and the FDA's view.

In 2016, a survey by the Consumer Reports magazine showed that at least 60 percent of consumers believed foods labeled as natural meant they contained no artificial ingredients and no genetically modified materials.



Find below three quick facts about FDA's view on natural sweeteners -- that is what food manufacturers are supposed to comply:



1. FDA's policy 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.


2. 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.


3. 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 changes a material isolated from a plant.





NATURAL SWEETENERS MAY BE

MINIMALLY-PROCESSED, REFINED OR SYNTHETIC

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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.

I now turn the focus on 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 source materials, you can find out if a product claimed as "natural" meets your expectations.


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.

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.


I am often asked, "When it comes to sweeteners, does processing matter?" 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.

So, a natural sweetener may be minimally-processed, refined, highly-refined, and synthetic. What's the difference?


1) MINIMALLY-PROCESSED SWEETENER


A sweetener obtained through processes that involve minimal removal of the original components of the source is referred to 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.



Examples: honeycomb, honey, organic honey, raw honey, organic raw honey, date sugar.

2) REFINED SWEETENER



Remember that refining means the removal of the so-called impurities. Impurities include anything other than the sweet-component and result from the source material and methods used to produce the sweetener. Impurities interfere with the sweet taste.


A refined sweetener goes through processes for the removal of most impurities of the source. The sweetener keeps some of the "impurities" which gives them a characteristic taste and aroma. A great deal of processing and concentration (evaporation of water) is usually involved.

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.



Examples: unrefined cane sugar, traditional cane syrup, original cane molasses, organic light blue agave, organic amber blue agave, maple syrup, organic maple syrup, maple sugar, barrel-aged maple syrup, coconut sugar, coconut nectar, sorghum molasses, yacon syrup.


3) HIGHLY-REFINED SWEETENER


Sweeteners obtained through processes that almost completely remove "impurities" or non-sweet components of the source are called highly-refined. They are highly processed and concentration (evaporation of water) is often involved.



Examples: refined sugar (from cane and beet), raw sugar, stevia leaf extract, liquid stevia, stevia granulated, brown sugar replacement stevia, powdered stevia, monk fruit extract, monk fruit liquid, monk fruit granulated, golden monk fruit, powdered monk fruit, fruit juice concentrate syrup, apple sugar, lactose.


4) SYNTHETIC SWEETENER


aka Biologically Produced Sweetener or Enzymatically Enhanced Sweetener


A sweetener that does not occur in the plant from which it is manufactured --- 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.

Erythritol, for example, is widely promoted as a natural sweetener because it is found in nature –fruits, mushrooms, fermented foods. However, to be produced in a cost effective way, erythritol is not isolated from those sources. Instead, the store-bought erythritol is synthetically made from corn. Corn does not contain erythritol.


Examples: 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 Produced by Enzymes and Fermentation: Natural?

Manufacturers of natural sweeteners are increasingly using terms such as fermentation and enzymes to explain how their product is made. So, I am often asked if sweeteners produced via fermentation are in fact, natural and what it involves.


Many sweet-tasting molecules are found naturally in plants but only in minuscule amounts, making extraction and production in a large scale not cost-effective. Synthetic copies of some of those sweet molecules are being made via fermentation and enzymology.


Sweetener manufacturers promote the use of these processes as a more efficient and sustainable way to produce better sweet tasting products. For instance, to grow stevia, it is required intensive use of land and water, and the resulting leaves contain trace amounts of sweet molecules with a lot of impurities. Therefore, synthetic stevia extracts such as Bestevia and EverSweet (read about it here and here) are being used in sugar substitutes.


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. They are not present in the final product, which means they are generally used during processing and then inactivated or removed from the sweetener.

So, can sweeteners produced via fermentation be claimed as natural?


For the FDA and sweetener manufacturers they can. But, for us consumers, the answer depends on our expectation.


Do you mind your "natural sweetener" is not directly extracted and isolated from a plant? Instead, it is a synthetic copy of a naturally-occurring counterpart (intrinsic and intact in plants). If your answer is yes, then sweeteners produced by enzymology and fermentation -- aka synthetic sweeteners -- are not for you.


NATURAL vs ARTIFICIAL

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So if the FDA considers the synthetic sweeteners listed above as "natural", how do they compare with artificial options? According to the FDA's website, natural ingredients are "found in nature and might be manufactured artificially"—that includes all of the above synthetic sweeteners. On the other hand, the FDA states artificial ingredients are "not found in nature and therefore must be artificially 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.



Examples: Visit my artificial sweeteners page here for a list of brand names available in stores in 2020.


DISAGREE WITH FDA'S VIEW ON "NATURAL"?

YOU'RE NOT ALONE!

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Consumers do not agree with the FDA and food manufacturers on what a natural sweetener means as we can see in some class-action petitions that 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 the "natural" claim:

  • 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 it. More than 7,600 comments were collected. The FDA website has this page updated in October 2018 but as of May 2020, no decision has been made yet.


  • 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. The production process starts by converting cornstarch to glucose via enzymatic hydrolysis, then the fermentation of glucose using yeast result in an impure erythritol, which is refined to produce a 99.5% pure granulated erythritol.

  • In 2013, Cargill, Inc. was sued for marketing its stevia-based sweetener Truvía as natural. One complaint was that stevia extract reb A is highly processed and refined. In addition, erythritol -- the main ingredient (99% of the weight of Truvía powder) -- is a synthetic sweetener. In 2014, Cargill agreed to pay $6.1m, considered the highest settlement paid for a "natural" claim lawsuit.

  • 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.

Main Takeaways


We all have different ideas about what a natural sweetener means and usually it is not in line with the FDA's view. My goal was to make you aware that sweeteners carrying the "natural" claim may be highly refined and processed, or even synthetically produced by enzymes or fermentation. Synthetic sweeteners are not the same as artificial -- which are those not found in nature. Synthetic sweeteners are identical copies of sweet-tasting components of plants.


What is your take on natural sweeteners? Do you mind your "natural sweetener" is not directly extracted and isolated from a plant? Instead it is a synthetic copy (chemically identical) of a naturally-occurring counterpart (intrinsic and intact in plants).


Learn more by reading another blog post 5 Misconceptions about Natural Sweeteners.


Disclosure

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.


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