Are “natural” sugars really better for you?

February 15, 2021 in Leslie's Featured Content

Are “natural” sugars really better for you?

With so many people avoiding sugar, so-called natural alternatives such as honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and, newer on the scene, monk fruit sweeteners are becoming popular.

Some of these sweeteners, though, aren’t as natural as you think.

Sugars that are processed to a lesser degree than white (table) sugar are often thought of as “natural” alternatives. Some are also touted to add valuable vitamins and minerals to your diet.

White sugar is processed and refined from sugarcane or beets; during the refining process minerals and natural compounds are removed. Carbohydrates aside, white sugar is void of nutrients.

Degree of processing aside, still added sugars

Raw sugar contains trace amounts of minerals because it’s produced when the final refining process is bypassed.  Honey and maple syrup, very minimally processed, also contain trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Coconut sugar (a.k.a. coconut palm sugar) is made by a natural process of boiling the sap of flower buds from the coconut palm tree until the water is evaporated. The sugar retains some potassium from the sap.

Still, the amount of nutrients in a tablespoon or two of these more natural sugars is miniscule. And when it comes to calories and carbohydrate content, there’s little or no difference between them and white sugar. (Maple syrup and honey have slightly more calories than table sugar.)

Like white sugar, they are all added sugars that need to be limited. Ditto for other healthier-sounding sugars such as brown rice syrup, organic cane syrup (i.e. organic white sugar), and fruit juice concentrate.

How much sugar is too much?

Guidelines from the World Health Organization, released in 2015, recommend that adults and kids reduce their intake of added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories. The organization recommended a further reduction to less than 5% of daily calories would provide additional health benefits.

Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s roughly 25 g of added sugars per day for women (six teaspoons worth) and 36 g (nine teaspoons worth) for men.

What is monk fruit?

Monk fruit extract is a zero-calorie sweetener that comes from a melon-like fruit that’s grown in China and Thailand. The sweet juice is extracted from the fruit and processed into crystals.

Monk fruit sweetener is 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar, thanks to chemical compounds called mogrosides. These sweet-tasting compounds are not absorbed in the digestive tract, so they don’t contribute any calories to the diet.

In 2013, Health Canada approved monk fruit extract to be used in table-top sweeteners. In the U.S., monk fruit extract is also allowed to be added to foods and beverages.

Monk fruit extract is heat stable and can be used in cooking and baking. Because it’s so much sweeter than sugar, only a small amount is needed.

While monk fruit exact is not as heavily processed as refined sugar, that doesn’t mean monk fruit sweeteners are 100 per cent pure. Monk fruit extract is often combined with other sweeteners such as erythritol (a sugar alcohol), and sometimes sugar and molasses, to balance out the taste.

Sugar alcohols are made by adding hydrogen molecules to sugar. Doing so makes them harder to absorb in the small intestine, so they deliver fewer calories than regular sugar does.

Reduced absorption means sugar alcohols end up in the large intestine where they can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea if consumed in excess. Compared to other sugar alcohols, erythritol is less likely to cause digestive upset.

Is stevia natural?

Stevia sweeteners, 200 to 350 times sweeter than sugar, come from the stevia plant which grows in South America.  Sounds natural, but in fact they’re highly processed.

These zero-calorie sweeteners are made by extracting the plant’s sweet compounds, steviol glycosides, from the leaves of the plant and purifying them to remove bitter compounds. Some steviol glycosides are also made through processes called bioconversion and fermentation.

Depending on which country you live in, purified steviol glycosides may be sold as tabletop sweeteners and regulated as food additives.

Bottom line

If you don’t want the calories, monk fruit is less processed than stevia, but it may be harder to find unless you’re buying it online. Both are certainly more “natural” than artificial sweeteners (e.g., aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame potassium).

If you prefer to use an added sugar that’s less processed than white sugar, honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar are good choices. But like all added sugars, use them sparingly.

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.