Natural sweeteners come from flowers and plants directly, with little processing. Examples include stevia, monk fruit, and yacon syrup. Many people are turning away from refined table sugar and high fructose corn syrup in search of healthier options. They may be making more extensive changes, such as following a ketone diet, which can help some people avoid unnecessary calories and lose weight. Also, people with conditions like diabetes should be aware of the types of sweeteners they use, as many affect blood sugar.
While natural sweeteners may be a better alternative to refined sugars, some are less healthy than many people think. Anyone considering switching sweeteners for health reasons can benefit from discussing the options with a dietitian or physician.
Stevia rebaudiana is a plant in the sunflower family and is native to parts of South America. The leaves contain two main compounds: one is extremely sweet, while the other is very bitter.
Manufacturers extract the sweet compounds from the plant to produce stevia. These compounds can be up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, and stevia extracts are naturally calorie-free, making the sweetener a popular choice.
However, some people feel that stevia is not really “natural” due to the amount of processing required to produce the white powdered stevia product in many stores. A person can buy stevia leaves and leaf powder, although these can contain both bitter and sweet compounds and are less available.
Monk fruit, native to southern China, is another alternative sweetener. The fruit contains compounds called mogrosides, which can be 150–200 times sweeter than sugar, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation.
However, although they are sweet, these compounds do not raise blood sugar in the same way that other sweeteners do. Monk fruit extracts also contain no calories or carbohydrates.
Yacon syrup is a sticky nectar harvested from the yacon plant, which is also native to parts of South America. The syrup is dark brown in color and looks like molasses. Yacon syrup contains calories. However, it is rich in soluble fibers called fructooligosaccharides, which have only half the calories of regular sugar, as a review in the journal BMC Medicine notes.
According to a review in the journal Nutrients, these fibers also feed healthy bacteria in the intestines. As a result, yacon syrup can help with digestive problems like constipation.
The authors also note that switching to yacon syrup can contribute to weight loss and lower blood sugar. Furthermore, they report that taking yacon has reduced fat levels in previous trials, some of which involved animal models. Confirmation of all these effects in humans will require further investigation.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that comes from natural sources like birch trees, although some companies make it from other plant materials.Sugar alcohols tend to provide the flavor of sugar, and xylitol has a sweetness very similar to sugar. However, as an article in the British Dental Journal reports, a tablespoon of xylitol contains approximately 10 calories, while the same amount of sugar contains approximately 16 calories. The body absorbs xylitol more slowly than sugar, which means that xylitol does not produce the same dramatic spikes in blood sugar.
Xylitol can also have health benefits. For example, a review in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine notes that regular consumption of xylitol can reduce the levels of harmful Streptococcus mutans bacteria in plaque and saliva, making it effective in preventing cavities. This is one reason why many toothpastes and gum now contain xylitol.
Like xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol. While erythritol comes from natural sources, such as fruits, the powdered version available in stores is generally highly refined. Erythritol tastes very similar to sugar, with about 60 to 80% of the sweetness of sugar, but contains a fraction of the calories.
Also, the body does not absorb much erythritol; most of it leaves the body through urine, leaving blood sugar levels relatively intact. Erythritol may also be less prone to causing digestive symptoms, compared to other sugar alcohols, such as xylitol.