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?
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
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.
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