Natural Sweeteners

Natural sweeteners have been used by humans for food and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Ultimately, man’s quest for the sweet things in life led to the discovery and development of ultra processed sweeteners, with varying sweetness, taste, and functionality.

As you might imagine, natural sweeteners are minimally processed and unrefined. Examples of minimally processed sweeteners include fresh fruit, fresh juice, naturally dehydrated fruit (e.g., medjool dates), wild honey, pure maple syrup, granulated maple sugar, whole stevia leaves, coconut palm sugar, and sucanat. Ultra processed sweeteners, on the other hand, include sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols, and high intensity sweeteners.

Wild Honey

Sweeteners enjoyed by our early human ancestors would have included the sweet taste of berries and wild honey. In fact, wild honey and berries remain an important source of energy and nutrition for all warm-climate modern day hunter-gatherer tribes (e.g., the Hadza of Tanzania). Honey is an essential energy source as well as a tasty treat and both Hadza men and women rank honey as their favorite food (source).

Foragers gather wild berries and honey throughout the day from bushes and trees, often relying on birds to guide them to hollowed-out trees. An African bird called the greater honeyguide is famous for leading people to honey, and a new study shows that the birds listen for certain human calls to figure out who wants to play follow-the-leader (source).

Yao honey hunter Orlando Yassene holds a male greater honeyguide temporarily captured for research in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. The birds will flutter in front of people, tweet and fly from tree to tree to guide hunters to bees’ nests that are hidden inside the trunks of hollow trees. This teamwork could date back thousands or even a million years. Source: NPR
Maple Syrup

While there are written accounts of maple sugaring in North America dating back to the mid 1500s, the exact origins of maple sugaring are unknown. Some reports suggest Native American Indians introduced maple syrup to French explorers in 1540. History also remains silent on whether Native Americans boiled down the sap to maple sugar, or if these techniques were introduced by the French explorers and missionaries. Either way, Native Americans and European settlers were both using iron and copper kettles to make syrup and maple sugar by the 1700s. However, it wasn’t until the Civil War that the maple syrup industry was born.

Medjool Dates

Contrary to popular belief, dates have a low GI and provide numerous health benefits. As such, dates make a great alternative to sugar in both raw and cooked recipes. Below are tips for substituting medjool dates in your recipes (e.g., smoothies and raw energy bars).

  • In general, substitute 1 chopped medjool date for every 1 tablespoon of natural sweetener
  • In smoothie or raw food recipes, consider soaking your medjool dates in filtered water for 1 to 2 hours prior to use
  • Soaking will soften the dates enabling a more even and consistent distribution of the sweetener
  • After soaking, be sure to rinse the dates with fresh water and remove the pits

**In the photo gallery below, I also provide the instructions for substituting sugar with unsweetened applesauce.

Ultra Processed Sweeteners

The use of ultra processed sweeteners is on the rise due to growing consumer interest in health foods and weight loss. However, recent research seems to suggest regular consumers of sugar substitutes may be at increased risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes. In general, ultra processed sweeteners include sugar substitutes, high-intensity sweeteners, and sugar alcohols.

Sugar Substitutes

Examples of sugar substitutes approved for use in the United States include the following:

  • Stevia (e.g., Truvia®, PurEvia®, Nectevia®, Stevia in the Raw®, Sweetleaf®, Pyure®, and Fructevia®)
  • Luo Han Guo Fruit Extract or Monk Fruit (e.g., Nectresse®)
  • Agave Nectar
Stevia

All products marketed as Stevia in the United Statues are ultra processed and refined. Unfortunately, whole leaf stevia and crude stevia products have not been approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Products marketed as “Stevia” in the United States include Truvia®, PurEvia®, Nectevia®, Stevia in the Raw®, Sweetleaf®, Pyure®, and Fructevia®.

  • Stevioside is 200 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Rebaudioside A (Reb A) is 300 times sweeter than table sugar
  • Whole leaf stevia (or crude stevia) is approximately 15 times sweeter than table sugar
Agave

Agave nectar is another sugar substitute promoted as “natural” with benefits including a low glycemic index. However, the truth is, agave nectar is another ultra-processed and refined sweetener with a high percentage of fructose and little evidence to support long-term safety or health benefits.

High-Intensity Sweeteners

Examples of high-intensity sweeteners approved for use in the United States include the following:

  • Aspartame (e.g., Equal®, Nutrasweet®, and Canderel®)
  • Acesulfane-K (e.g., Sweet One® and Sunett®)
  • Saccharin (e.g., Sweet ‘N Low® and Sugar Twin®)
  • Sucralose (e.g., Splenda)
  • Cyclamate
  • Alitame
  • Neotame
  • Neo-DHC: Approved in the United States as a “flavor enhancer” only

Sugar Alcohols

Examples of sugar alcohols approved for use in the United States include the following:

  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Maltitol
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Tagatose (Galactose and Sucralose)
  • Mannitol
  • Erythritol
  • Glycerol
  • Hydrogenated Starch

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Dana

Natural Sweeteners

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. This means you are free to use my work for personal use (e.g., save the file to your computer or share via social media) as long as you do not modify the image or use the image for commercial purposes ($). Big hugs! Dana

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