The Bitter Truth About Natural Sweeteners

They’re often touted as “natural” by food makers, but what’s the truth about our favorite sweeteners?

Natural is one of those words that possess the so-called “health halo effect.”


Elaine Koontz, a contributing dietitian to the professional website RD411, explains: “Simply put, the health halo effect leads people to overestimate the overall healthfulness of a food based on one narrow attribute.”

There’s little doubt that, for most consumers, when something is labeled as natural they assume it is lower in calories – and maybe even good for you.


But a “natural cookie” is still a cookie; just because it’s labeled as natural doesn’t make it lower in calories … or sugar … or fat. The term natural appears on everything from fruit juice to candy.

According to the American Diabetes Association, the term natural is used very loosely when it comes to food – and there is not a standard definition for it. Food and Drug Administration policy does say that the term natural should apply to foods that do not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.


Don’t swallow label claims without first reading the ingredients. That is the only way you know what’s really in the package.

“In nutrition textbooks, sugar is divided into two types: natural sugars, such as those found in fruit; and added sugars, such as honey, syrup and white sugar. Here’s the trick: Companies take real fruit, concentrate it into a pulp or puree, and then use it to sweeten foods. Because it comes from fruit, food labeling laws allow the sweetener to be called natural, and the claim ‘no added sugar’ is permissible, even though the fruit is basically processed into sugar or syrup,” registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom recently wrote in the Washington Post.


“If a food package says ‘no added sugar,’ look at the ingredient list. If you see fruit pulp, concentrate or puree, that’s sugar! Now check the item’s Nutrition Facts panel. You may be shocked to find that your ‘no added sugar’ juice or candy has 40 grams (10 teaspoons) of ‘natural’ sugar per serving. Anything with that much sugar is not healthy to consume in a single serving.”


But what is the truth about Truvia and other sugar substitutes such as Pure Via, Splenda, or Equal?  Are they really natural? Are they really safe?


According to  a purified component form of the stevia plant — called rebaudioside A (rebiana) — is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA and may be used as an artificial sweetener in foods and beverages.


There’s no evidence that these “novel sweeteners” from stevia offer an advantage for weight loss over other less “natural” artificial sweeteners aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin, neotame, and sucralose – substances that have undergone rigorous testing by the FDA.


The FDA has established an acceptable daily intake for the amount that can be safely eaten. reminds us that consumers should not eat unlimited amounts of sugar substitutes. For example, stevia extracts may cause mild side effects, such as nausea or a feeling of fullness. notes that the FDA does not approve crude stevia or whole leaf products because of possible health problems. Affects on blood sugar levels, cardiovascular and reproductive systems and the kidneys remain unclear.


The notes quite rightly that sugar substitutes can be confusing, especially if a product is labeled “natural” even though its processed or refined, as is the case with some stevia preparations.


Even more confusing, some artificial sweeteners are derived from naturally occurring substances. Sucralose (Splenda) is made from sugar that has been processed to change its molecular structure. It’s been tested, declared safe, but it’s not listed in the “natural sweetener” category.



Susan Burke March, MEd, RDN, CDE – Food, Nutrition, and Your Health columnist for


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *