• PALM Centre

Natural sweeteners, are they better than sugar?

The use of natural sweeteners in the hopes of replacing sugar to provide tasty food without the harmful effects of excessive sugar consumption has been constantly explored in an effort to reduce prevalence of obesity and diabetes mellitus. This makes people wonder, if this is possible, are natural sweeteners better than sugar?

What are natural sweeteners?

Some might think that natural sweeteners are sweeteners produced without the use of added chemicals, enzymes or expensive machinery, such as maple syrup, coconut palm sugar, stevia, raw honey, sorghum syrup, sucanat, miel de agave traditionally-made agave nectar. However, from the industry’s point of view, plant-derived natural products that undergo chemical processing are considered “natural” sweeteners as well. This includes mainly glycyrrhizin (aka glycyrrhizic acid), mogroside V, phyllodulcin, rebaudioside A, stevioside, and thaumatin. Among these, the most commercially profitable sweeteners, and hence the most common ones, are: rebaudioside A, stevioside, erythritol and monk fruit extract/mogroside V (Fry, 2012).

Although there have been numerous studies citing the adverse health effects of artificial sweetener consumption, natural sweeteners are revered for being “healthier than sugar without any detrimental side effects”.

Is this really true?

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there is a lack of conclusive evidence based research to prove that non nutritive sweeteners (NNS), sweeteners without any kilocalories, are beneficial in displacing caloric sweeteners. Moderate use of NNS may be useful for individuals who have diabetes. However, minimal usage of both sugar and NNS are still recommended for optimal health (Shankar, Ahuja & Sriram, 2013). Promoting use of artificial or natural sweeteners is similar to promoting use of sugar. It should be limited as it is low in nutrients and supports craving and reliance on sweet tasting food and/or beverages.

The Institute of Medicine does not support artificial sweetener use in children because artificially sweetened beverages have been shown to displace milk and 100% juice at mealtimes (Sylvetsky, Rother & Brown, 2011).

Some believe that substituting reduced-energy sweetened options for sugar-sweetened counterparts would lead to weight loss due to a lower caloric intake. However, numerous experimental studies have shown that the assumed calorie deficit is not maintained and often weight loss is insignificant or unachieved. One hypothesis was that people tend to compensate for the “missing calories” in a low calorie sweetened food or drink by subsequently eating more (Sylvetsky, Rother & Brown, 2011; Zhang et al., 2014). Researchers suggested that artificial sweeteners may weaken the association of sweetness with caloric intake and lead to addiction which could cause increased consumption of high-energy food unconsciously, and subsequently gain weight (Zhang et al., 2014).

To some extent, natural sweeteners may be better than sugar, which has zero nutritive value. Below are a few examples of sweeteners which are claimed to be better or worse than sugar:

1. Agave nectar

Agave nectar have low glycemic index, which means a slower rise in blood sugar. However, one should not depend only on glycemic index to evaluate a food’s healthfulness, as the caloric and nutrient content is not negligible. Agave contains approximately 90 percent fructose, compared to table sugar which has 50 percent fructose and it delivers the same amount of calories with no nutrients, also known as empty calories.

2. Coconut nectar

Coconut nectar has low glycemic index and contains minerals and inulin, a prebiotic that may be beneficial for gastrointestinal health.

3. Maple syrup

Maple syrup contains a very small amount of B vitamins and some minerals, such as potassium, zinc and magnesium. However, it also has a high sucrose content of 511–688 mg/g (Mellado-Mojica, Seeram & López, 2016).

4. Honey

Honey contains very small amounts of vitamin C, calcium and polyphenols (antioxidants).

5. Yacon syrup

Yacon syrup contains fructooligosaccharides, prebiotics which are beneficial for gut health.

6. Stevia

Reported to have minimal side effects and contain 0 calories.

7. Blackstrap Molasses

Blackstrap molasses is the only form of molasses containing traces of vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B-6. However, it tends to taste strong, dark, and slight bit­ter to some. The lighter versions contain negligible amounts of these minerals as well, even lesser than the darker versions.

The following table consists of the commonly used low-calorie natural sweeteners in the market:

* Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) by the American Food and Drug Administration. To be listed, the substance must have a history of consumption before 1958 by a significant number of people or there must be consensus among experts qualified to evaluate product safety that the use of the substance is safe (Fitch & Keim, 2012).

*Acceptable daily intake (ADI): mg/kg bodyweight, which is the amount of sweetener thought to be safe to consume everyday for a lifetime.

*Estimated Daily Intake (EDI): Typical human intake of the sweetener. If the EDI is below the ADI, then the sweetener is considered safe for human use.


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